Len McCluskey warns Starmer as Unite moves to cut Labour funding

Union’s general secretary tells Labour leader not to move party too far from the left

Wed 7 Oct 2020 by https://www.theguardian.com/

Len McCluskey: ‘I don’t see at the moment any dramatic move to disaffiliate from the Labour party. The Labour party is our party.’ Photograph: Hollie Adams/PA

Unite, Labour’s biggest single donor, is to cut the amount of money it gives the party after the union’s general secretary, Len McCluskey, said he feared Keir Starmer was leading it away from the left.

McCluskey, who was a strong supporter of Jeremy Corbyn, first ordered a review into Unite’s contributions in August following Starmer’s decision to pay damages to former party staff who became whistleblowers over antisemitism.

Unite gave the party £3m in advance of the 2019 election, and about £7m over the course of the year in total. A meeting of its executive on Tuesday is reported to have decided to cut its contribution by 10%.

Before the vote, McCluskey told BBC Two’s Newsnight: “I have no doubt if things start to move in different directions and ordinary working people start saying, well, I’m not sure what Labour stands for. But I don’t see at the moment any dramatic move to disaffiliate from the Labour party. The Labour party is our party.”

McCluskey has been particularly critical of Starmer’s decision in July to make a formal apology to party whistleblowers who spoke to a BBC Panorama programme about antisemitism in the party, and to pay them damages.

The eight former staffers sued the party for defamation, saying senior Labour figures had issued statements attacking their reputations and suggesting they had ulterior political and personal motives to undermine the party.

When the programme was broadcast, a Labour spokesman called them “disaffected former officials” and said they had “worked actively to undermine” Corbyn and had “both personal and political axes to grind”.

McCluskey told Newsnight he and the party’s executive were angry about the decision, “because they thought it was an absolute mistake and wrong to pay out huge sums of money to individuals who were suing the Labour party based on the Panorama programme, when Labour’s own legal people were saying that they would lose that case if it went to court”.

He added: “So we shouldn’t have paid them anything.”

In August, McCluskey had told the Observer there was “no doubt” the union’s executive would review its contributions to Labour in light of the Panorama settlements.

“It’s an abuse of members’ money,” McCluskey said. “A lot of it is Unite’s money and I’m already being asked all kinds of questions by my executive. It’s as though a huge sign has been put up outside the Labour party with: ‘Queue here with your writ and get your payment over there.’”

At the time, McCluskey’s promise of a review was praised by some of Corbyn’s allies in the Labour parliamentary party, such as Ian Lavery.

McCluskey has himself faced criticism over funds being spent on defamation cases, after a case last year cost the union an estimated £1m in damages and legal fees.

The former Labour MP Anna Turley sued Unite over an article on the Skwawkbox blog that claimed she acted dishonestly while applying to become a member of the union. The article quoted a Unite spokesperson, and the union covered the costs of the journalist, Stephen Walker.

Responding to Unite’s decision, a spokesman for Starmer said: “Unite have taken their decision. We have seen Len’s remarks and we acknowledge that. But Labour will continue to take the decisions that are in the best interests of the country.

“Keir’s focus and the entire Labour movement’s focus is restoring trust in the Labour party and winning in 2024.”

Asked if it could benefit Starmer to appear to have distance from Unite, his spokesman said: “Len has taken his decision, Unite has taken its decision; it is for others to speculate and analyse that decision.”

He added: “The whole Labour party needs to take responsibility for the fact that we have lost four elections in a row.”