Unite’s Len McCluskey is supposed to champion workers’ rights – but the Nissan debacle shows he’s failing
The Labour leadership, with its current stance, is missing opportunities to challenge the government over threats to UK manufacturing
While Unite boss Len McCluskey was busy politicking and undermining the united front the union movement had sought to present to Theresa May’s government over Brexit, a bomb was in the process of falling on his members.
Those in Sunderland have been facing up to the harsh reality of the Tory project that Lexiters such as the Unite leader are playing the role of facilitators for.
Nissan confirmed reports on Sunday that its new X-Trail SUV will be built in Japan rather than Sunderland.
That’s a U-turn on a pledge made in 2016, four months after the EU referendum. But things were very different then. No one was seriously talking about a no-deal exit, which threatens to leave manufacturers’ parts stuck in a massive lorry park in Kent for weeks on end.
In the meantime, Japan and the EU have fixed up a trade deal that will secure tariff-free access to each other’s markets. The UK’s exports, by contrast, will attract thumping new ones under the World Trade Organisation rules that Tory Brexiteers drool over.
No existing jobs are currently threatened by the decision, which merely draws a curtain on future investment. But the writing is now on the wall for Sunderland, as the models built at Nissan’s plant there start to age.
Ministers are said to be talking about pulling a support package, having been given barely a day’s notice of the company’s decision and told it is not up for negotiation. It will be nothing more than a tit-for-tat move that will only serve to raise further question marks over the plant’s future.
Senior figures in the union movement are quietly furious with McCluskey. After the GMB and Unison, as well as Unite and the Trades Union Congress, met with the prime minister to discuss Brexit, McCluskey fixed up a meeting of his own with business secretary Greg Clark to talk about workers’ rights. The others were left out of the loop.
In so doing, McCluskey fell for a classic bait and switch, with the government advertising a commitment that will look very different under May’s successor, who will either be drawn from the party’s hard right, or be even more in hock to it than she is.
Unless the UK remains in the European single market, and/or a withdrawal agreement contains a binding agreement for the UK to shadow developments in employment law on the continent, that future hard-right Tory leader will be able to rip up any commitments the current government makes in favour of something greatly inferior.
That will be great news for the gig economy kingpins, call centre bosses, and others looking to exploit cheap non-unionised labour, which is about the best Sunderland can expect as Nissan winds down its commitment to the region.
It is being sold down the river. The tragedy is that McCluskey is playing a role in that.
A stretch, said a union source of my acquaintance, when I suggested that he bore a share of the responsibility for what has happened with Nissan.
But think about this: McCluskey is a powerful and influential member of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s inner circle. Had Corbyn opted to give something more than tepid backing for Yvette Cooper’s Brexit amendment, which would have legally kiboshed no deal and extended the negotiating process – it might have passed.
That might not have saved Nissan’s investment and there are no guarantees that Corbyn would have listened had McCluskey pushed for it. We don’t know.
But the carmaker’s decision does seem to have been made with some haste, and was clearly motivated by the morass Britain has fallen into. The firm made that very clear, with a no-deal cliff edge looming.
That outcome, which is looking ever more likely, will have a devastating impact on UK manufacturing and thus upon many Unite members. The Labour leadership, with its current stance, is serving as its midwife and McCluskey is in the delivery room, holding the forceps.
Contrast his attitude with that of Tim Roache, the GMB general secretary, who this morning unveiled a deal with delivery company Hermes that will for the first time offer workers guaranteed wages and holiday pay.
He has also called for his members, and the rest of us, to be given a vote on whether the final Brexit deal is what we really want.
McCluskey needs to wake up too as the clock ticks ever more loudly. Is he capable of doing that? I’m not hopeful.