was elected general secretary of Britain’s largest and most powerful trade union, Unite, in 2010 – and was widely dismissed as a ‘throwback’ and a ‘dinosaur’. His re-election in 2017 was described by the Economist as ‘a tragedy’.
Huw Spanner met him in Limehouse on 25 January 2022 and found him recently retired but anything but retiring.
Photography: Andrew Firth
You come across in your autobiography1Always Red (OR Books, 2021) as a reasonable, pragmatic man, but the media have you down as ‘hard left’. To many people, that suggests extremism and intransigence.
I know, I know. Do I accept the label? I suppose I’ve become resigned to it.
I’m a socialist: I want to make life better for everyone. If somebody is trying to distinguish between ‘soft left’ and ‘hard left’ in the political arena, rather than being pejorative, I would be happy to say, yeah, I’m hard left.
What’s the difference?
I suppose it’s a question of the level of progressive advancement you believe in. I believe that the Labour Party was created to challenge the Establishment and, for me, if ‘hard left’ means anything it means challenging the Establishment more, whereas a soft-left approach might be more reformist. Andy Burnham,2A contender for the Labour leadership in 2010 and 2015, interviewed for High Profile in March 2011 say, is soft left.
Do I want to abolish capitalism? It never even enters my head. Gradual reformism is something I’m comfortable with. There was nothing revolutionary or Bolshevik about the 2017 Labour manifesto,3labour-manifesto-2017.pdf for example – it was simply saying: Look, this is what we think might make life better. There were people who wanted it to go further, but I was saying: The most important thing here is just to get in and to make this reform.
Let’s go back to your childhood. What was your upbringing like, and how did it form you?
I had a happy working-class childhood in the back streets of Liverpool. I lived in a terraced house, way, way beyond its demolition date, with no bathroom and no toilet (but with cockroaches and mice).
I had a very loving family. My mum and dad were beautiful people, and I have a beautiful sister, 10 years older than me. My dad was the loveliest man I’ve ever met – he died when he was 72 and my one regret is that I never told him I loved him.
They had lost their first son [at the age of three] in 1944 and so when I came along in 1950 I was wrapped in cotton wool. My mum and dad were 35 and 38, which back then was considered old [to be having a child], and I was regarded as a miracle baby. My dad, in particular, was very protective of me – he’d only seen my brother on six occasions, because he was away in the war.
I believe that all religions seek to divide working people, and anything that divides people for me is wrong. I’m opposed to every single religion, whether that be Islam, Judaism, Catholicism…
My dad was astonished at the National Health Service. He couldn’t comprehend it. My mum used to tell me about the Thirties, when women who had sick children would beg in the streets for pennies to pay for the doctor. I said I was wrapped in cotton wool and as a result I caught every childhood disease you could think of – I had pneumonia, certainly once, maybe twice. So, that seeped into me, how important the NHS was.
Politically, my mum and dad were Labour people through and through – they used to say that they would cut off their right arm before they’d vote Tory.
Your schooling by Christian Brothers made a negative impression on you. Has Catholicism left any lasting mark on you?
I think the lasting mark is that I am anti-religion. I believe that all religions seek to divide working people, and anything that divides people for me is wrong.
How do they seek to divide people?
I think religion by its very nature [declares] that those that follow it are the chosen people and everybody else is wrong. I’m opposed to every single religion, whether that be Islam, Judaism, Catholicism, Protestantism…
I’m not an atheist. I often get ribbed by my friends and family who are [atheists] that I’m a fence-sitter, but my view is that because you can neither prove nor disprove the existence of God, it’s an irrelevance. The only thing that really matters is the practicalities of the world that we live in.
You say in the book: ‘Our values are eternal.’ Who are ‘we’, and what are these ‘eternal’ values?
Well, the values of community spirit, of solidarity. Growing up, I observed that when people were in trouble, everyone rallied around. I had two aunts and uncles living in the same street [as me] and I can recall my mum and my sister and me taking Christmas dinner up the back entry into my Uncle Larry and Auntie Lena’s, because he was out of work and they had no money.
The evil creed of Thatcherism – that there’s no such thing as society and we’re only on this earth to look after ourselves and our family4In an interview with Woman’s Own published in November 1987, Margaret Thatcher said: ‘We have gone through a period when too many people have been given to understand “I have a problem; it is the Government’s job to deal with it.” So, they are casting their problems on society. And who is society? There is no such thing. There are individual men and women and there are families, and no government can do anything except through people – and people look to themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then also to look after our neighbour and life is a reciprocal business and people have got the entitlements too much in mind without the obligations, because there is no such thing as an entitlement unless someone has first met an obligation.’ – is the complete opposite to what I grew up in, which was not walking by on the other side when someone was in trouble.
I think that working-class solidarity and community spirit is what defines me. When I went to work on the docks [in 1968], of course I joined the trade union, and that was very much about collectivism, about sticking together: when any of your mates are in trouble, you rally behind them. That has been a theme that has run through the whole of my life.
Is community spirit not found throughout British society?
Don’t get me wrong! In a middle-class area, there are friendly neighbours and people go into each other’s homes and develop relationships. But it is my experience that if somebody in a middle-class area couldn’t pay the gas bill, they wouldn’t go and ask a neighbour, because they’d be somewhat ashamed, whereas in a working-class area that often happened.
What do you understand by the term ‘working-class’?
Well, the working class used to be easily identified through economics, but that vanished a long time ago. My sister, for example, married a river pilot in a very well-paid job and, you know, became in a sense middle-class.
I’ve never found it difficult to regard myself as working-class, despite the fact that for 40 years or so I’ve had a very well-paid job that has allowed me to enjoy the luxuries of life.
Why is that sense of solidarity so particularly strong in Liverpool?
The problems that ordinary people face are common throughout the world. And what is also common throughout the world is that the reason those problems exist is because of the capitalist system
It’s not a big city – of course, it’s not London or Greater Manchester – and there’s a lot of resonance with [places] like Glasgow, Newcastle, South Wales, Cardiff, the East End of London, all of which have had to face adversity.
Boris Johnson5Interviewed for High Profile in August 2004 famously [accused] Liverpudlians of always seeing themselves as victims6‘They see themselves whenever possible as victims, and resent their victim status; yet at the same time they wallow in it. Part of this flawed psychological state is that they cannot accept that they might have made any contribution to their misfortunes, but seek rather to blame someone else for it, thereby deepening their sense of shared tribal grievance against the rest of society’ (editorial in the Spectator, 16 October 2004). and there’s an element of truth in that. It’s always us against them, which generates constantly this collectivism.
I don’t believe that if [the Hillsborough disaster7See wikipedia.org/Hillsborough_disaster.] had happened to any other city, it would have been successful in getting justice and the truth. Liverpool has this DNA that says: We’re not prepared to bend the knee. And that’s in me.
The innermost circle of your identity, I suspect, is your support for Liverpool FC…
If you’re not a football fan, you won’t appreciate what it’s like to be part of a tribe. It defies logic.
There’s a photograph in your book of a supporters’ banner with the slogan: ‘We’re not English, we are Scouse.’
I’ve never regarded myself as English. Or British.
There came a point, 10, 15 years ago, when I was challenged on that: ‘Until you come to terms with your English identity, how can you challenge English nationalism, the horrible jingoism that we’ve seen?’ And I struggled with that, and I still struggle. I know lots of Scottish socialists who are proud to be Scottish, I know lots of Welsh socialists who are proud to be Welsh, lots of Irish socialists who are proud to be Irish; I don’t know many English socialists who are proud to be English.
That stems, of course, from the history of the Empire and the flag, which the left has rejected out of hand my whole political life.
You’re also an internationalist. Is that a commitment to the whole of humankind?
No, it’s a class issue for me. I’ve been fortunate in my career to visit many countries and meet lots of good people and it’s always struck me that the problems that ordinary working people face – [the need for] decent jobs, decent homes, decent education, decent care for the elderly – are common throughout the world. And what is also common throughout the world is that the reason why those problems exist is because of the global capitalist system.
You seem to use the terms ‘working-class people’ and ‘working people’ interchangeably. Don’t middle-class people work?
I think ‘working people’ is an attempt by me – and by others – to break that rigid class division. I do mean ‘working people’. I mean, I wouldn’t ever regard myself as an ideologue – I haven’t studied Marx sufficiently to be able to call myself a ‘Marxist’, for example – but I do believe that the wealth that is created by working people should be distributed in a more equitable fashion than the current system allows.
Do I want to bring down capitalism? If only I had a magic wand to do that! But what would you put in its place? But I do feel that if the system we operate under still has [14.5] million people living below the poverty line8jrf.org.uk/data/ in the sixth-richest country in the world –
The sixth-largest economy, surely? Per capita, a lot of countries are richer than Britain.
Well, I won’t argue. I’m not sure it’s that important. All that I know is, Britain is a very, very rich country and yet four million kids go to school hungry every day. Now, that can’t be right. I would defy anyone, [even an] arch-Tory, to say: ‘Well, that’s life.’ Everybody would say it’s wrong – and [from that] develops the political debate.
Where I stand is that the wealth that we create is not shared in the manner that it should be shared. [In 1975], 65 per cent of our gross domestic product, the wealth we create, used to go into the salaries and wage packets of working people.9tuc.org.uk/…/TheGreatWagesGrab.pdf Today, that is down to 50 per cent.10See tuc.org.uk/research-analysis/. Now, even my basic A-level economics tells me that that drop is enormous; and it is the source of many of the problems we have in society.
The Labour Party slogan ‘For the many, not the few’ didn’t say how many or how few, which meant it could be used by traditional class warriors but also, say, by the Occupy movement, who talked of ‘the 99 per cent’ versus ‘the 1 per cent’.11wikipedia.org
When you talk of ‘the many’ and ‘the few’, where are you drawing the line?
I thought the Occupy movement’s [division] was pretty good. I heard the other day that a billionaire has been created every [17 hours] during this Covid [pandemic].12forbes.com Oxfam have produced some unbelievable statistics…
And the earnings for one year of the top 100 billionaires – not their wealth, their earnings – could eradicate extreme world poverty [four times over].14oxfam.org/en/press-releases/ Those scenes we see on TV of the little babies dying with flies crawling on them and their mothers and fathers impotent to do anything about it, that could be resolved like that.
Talk of community spirit, forged in adversity, can sound like nostalgia for the old days. One thing the left has often missed is the fact that people aspire for something better, isn’t it?
I was fundamentally opposed to the left’s position on people being able to buy their own council house. Margaret Thatcher put her finger on the pulse [with that policy] and in my view it was the main reason why she swept to power [in 1979]. It had a huge impact in those areas that were traditional Labour and working-class. It always amused me that those on the left that were saying it was wrong all owned their own homes.
And what Thatcher was doing [with] this home-owning, share-owning democracy was effectively to lock people in. There was a diminution of strikes because if you’re on strike and you can’t pay your mortgage, you lose your house. If it’s a council house and you fall behind on the rent, they don’t kick you out.
I read that you lost your house when you were 22.
I was out on strike for six weeks and I ended up falling behind on mortgage repayments. I had to sell my car – this beautiful Hillman Imp that I loved and still dream about – and I had to sell my house.
How come you owned a house at that age?
Well, I was lucky. I was married at 19 and at first my wife and I lived with her grandad and then we bought a house in Wigan, where the prices were considerably lower. If memory serves me right, I bought it for £3,000 and sold it for £6,000, which was a fortune!
Life changes, but what doesn’t change is: Are we happy with the current system that we have – in Britain, in Europe, in the world? I say: No, I want more. Someone once asked a great trade-union leader, ‘What do you want?’ And he said: ‘More.’ And, in a sense, that is it. I’ve never believed in the status quo. When I look back over my life, I’ve always felt: Yeah, you could say, ‘That’s good’ – but it’s not good enough. I want more.
Principled pragmatism is the key to everything I’ve done in my career. I’m someone who cuts deals. I’m somebody who listens to the problems and tries to arrive at something that satisfies everyone
More materially, or socially? Or spiritually?
More of everything. More of everything. More equality, I suppose.
Isn’t that demand for more and more what is ruining our planet? This is where red and green politics really conflict, isn’t it?
The climate crisis is very real, and so the question that all of us have to answer is: How do you improve life for the millions, indeed billions, who live in poverty – you know, better houses, better cars, better holidays – in a way that can also tackle the climate crisis? That is where the real conflict between red and green politics comes.
For me, it’s about a just transition. Some really good people are engaged in green politics and have very good objectives; but perhaps the reality of what those objectives might bring about – the elimination of well-paid jobs in certain industries without anything to put in their place – is really the question.
How do we stop the destruction of the Amazon rainforest? We can only stop it if we make certain that in countries such as Brazil there’s assistance to help [people] advance and develop without that type of action. How do you get China to stop flooding carbon emissions into the atmosphere? Only through co-operation and discussion as to how we can be more equitable in dealing with some of the problems that exist in the world.
OK… What I expected you to say is that it’s not that the cake needs to be larger (and larger) but that it needs to be distributed more fairly.
Of course I believe that; but it’s about the practicalities. In our own country, if everybody aspires to buy a car, you can’t preach to them and say: Why don’t you buy a bicycle?
The developed nations can’t suddenly start telling those that are developing: You can’t [have these things that] we’re enjoying. So, it’s about equitable distribution of wealth, yes, but it’s also about trying to look towards just transitions and other alternatives.
Research and development into better ways to treat our planet is something I absolutely am into and I’m very encouraged by the way young people are demanding it and pressurising governments to respond – because governments will not respond positively if left to their own devices. That’s where I believe [that] red politics, the advancement of socialism, and green politics don’t need to be in conflict, they can work together.
You greatly increased Unite’s strength by building up a £45-million strike fund and developing what you call ‘leverage’.15‘The idea of leverage is to show a hostile employer that we can impose consequences on them that will cost more than whatever they’re hoping to gain by screwing their workforce. … Leverage is an explosive tactic that is not to be used lightly. It’s for when an employer is already in an aggressive posture’ (Always Red, p289). Did you go into every negotiation thinking, ‘We want more!’, or did you sometimes think: ‘Actually, the management are struggling to balance the books. Maybe they can’t afford more’?
All the time. All the time. I’ve negotiated for workers for 50 years, right, and I suppose I’ve dealt with thousands upon thousands of negotiations where the employer has been in some difficulty and has opened the books and the shop stewards have been more than happy to say: ‘Hang on, we need to help the company out here. Otherwise, if we’re not careful, the place will go under and we’ll all lose our jobs.’
It happens all the time – never, ever reported in the media. The only thing you’ll ever read about trade unions in the media is when there’s confrontation. The last thing I want is a fight with an employer. The last thing I want. I’ve never known a worker who likes going out on strike. I personally, before I became an officer of the union, was out on strike on a number of occasions; I never liked it once. Workers don’t go on strike unless they feel they have a legitimate grievance.
What I call ‘principled pragmatism’ is the key to everything I’ve done in my career. I’m someone who cuts deals. I’m somebody who listens to the problems and tries to arrive at something that is satisfactory to everyone.
Sometimes you get the situation where a managing director, a decent man – he’s possibly one of ‘the many’ and not ‘the few’ – is saying: ‘I’ve got a problem. My bottom line is 8-per-cent profit, but our parent company insists that if we don’t return a 10-per-cent profit, they won’t invest – and we have to have investment to have a future.’ That happened constantly.
Now, that’s very difficult, because if I believe him, which on many, many occasions I have done, how do you then get the workers, who know that the company’s making £80 million profit, [to accept that it has] to make £100 million profit in order to get investment that is going to protect their jobs?
You have to tell them the truth, but they’re the ones who have to make the decision – and once they make it, I’ll support them 100 per cent. A hundred per cent.
You’ve said that your dad believed in ‘an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay’. There’s an anecdote early in your book that really shocked me –
I know where this is going!
You were a shop steward at 19, and the following year you’re playing football in your lunchbreak when you’re cut down by a tackle and break your elbow. Your mates persuade you to claim it as an industrial accident – and you win £18 ‘compensation’, which is worth almost £300 today.
Then you appeal and you get £250, worth about £4,000 today.
Doesn’t that story feed the perception that trade unionists are just out for what they can get? Or, indeed, that (as your Irish headmaster used to say) ‘youse Liverpool boys are teeves’?
When I was writing this book, I decided that I had to try to be as honest as I possibly could. Now, here’s the truth: there was real concern [in 1970] because there was turmoil on the docks and companies were going under, or leaving the port, and we didn’t have sick pay. I just wanted somebody to take me to hospital, but what my colleagues were more concerned about was making certain that I didn’t lose my job.
I received £18 for an industrial injury, which was fine by me; but somebody said, ‘You should appeal against that. It should be more.’
Of course, it does play to a stereotype about bobbing and weaving and ducking and diving…
You walked off with six weeks’ pay for a football injury.
Well, not really, not really, because of course if I’d been treated properly as a worker, if I’d had proper sick pay, if I wasn’t wondering whether I would lose my job, you know, the accident might have happened and I might have been taken off to get repairs and that would have been the end of that.
It was all a question of survival, I suppose – of being streetwise. I feel no kind of regret or embarrassment about it today.
You once asked the captain of the aircraft carrier HMS Invincible – you called it ‘HMS Invisible’ – who should be paid more, a ‘bin man’ or him? How do we determine what someone’s labour is worth? What principles can we apply?
It’s an unsolvable question. Some Unite members who are HGV drivers are earning £120,000 a year, way, way more than a nurse, more than a junior doctor – you know, twice as much as a headmaster. How can you balance that? You can’t. If you’re seeking a principle, it has to go back to where I started: We are a rich country where working people create the wealth. All you can do is try to [work out] what a society or a company can afford.
And entrepreneurs are a crucial part of that. Denise Coates, the woman who founded Bet365, was paid £469 million last year. Do I resent that? No, I absolutely don’t. If she started up a business, well, good luck to her! So long as she’s paying tax on that, and so long as the taxes are progressive and fair…
I was involved in a campaign to unionise the contract cleaners in Canary Wharf – the ‘invisible workers’, as they’re known. The CEOs of some of the top companies there, especially the banks, were paying less tax than the cleaners – never mind all these loadsamoney people who were speculating, producing absolutely nothing, absolutely nothing…
Jeremy Corbyn was a phenomenon. It was exhilarating – I’d never seen anything like it: people queuing up in the rain for hours to listen to a man who, by the way, is not the greatest orator in the world
We talk of a ‘political spectrum’ and in a spectrum the colours bleed into each other; but since 2015 it has seemed sometimes as if there is an absolute divide in British politics, between the Corbynistas and everyone else – including the right of the Labour Party. Is that your perception?
Jeremy Corbyn16Interviewed for High Profile in June 2015 was a phenomenon. I’ve been a member of the Labour Party since 1970, when I heard Tony Benn17Interviewed for High Profile in August 1996 speak in Wigan. I was 20 years of age and I had almost joined the Communist Party, but [the 1968 Soviet invasion of] Czechoslovakia happened and I didn’t like it, though I didn’t know why. Ever since, the left have always been a minority [in the Labour Party]. We were constantly told: ‘You left-wingers live in Cloudcuckooland. Your views, your vision are not shared by the British public.’
Now, what happened was that Corbyn destroyed that myth. In [the 2017 general election], nearly 13 million people voted for his manifesto. He was an inspiration, especially to young people – the very people that the establishment press have been telling us for years and years are not interested in politics. Suddenly they were, and that was because of him.
It was exhilarating, watching it happen. I’d never seen anything like it: people queuing up in the rain for hours to listen to a man who, by the way, is not the greatest orator in the world. You know, he’s no Tony Benn, he’s no George Galloway.18Interviewed for High Profile in June 2005 He went to speak on the beach at West Kirby, which is quite an affluent area, and there was thousands of people climbing over the sand dunes to listen to him.
Suddenly, the media are absolutely vilifying him: he’s an IRA sympathiser, he supports Hamas, Hezbollah – they peddle that constantly. He’s got his own parliamentary party knifing him in the back constantly. You can imagine the Establishment, the people who run our country and our lives, sitting in their clubs, saying: ‘What the fucking hell has happened here? How is this man challenging, for the first time, our control? We need to destroy Corbyn, we need to destroy anyone who supported him; we need to take down Corbynism once and for all.’
What was it that so antagonised even the liberal left in this country?
The liberal left are not interested in challenging the Establishment. The Establishment is deep-rooted in the Labour Party, in the liberal press. The Guardian would be the first to fight for the poor and the vulnerable – provided the poor and the vulnerable don’t decide to fight for themselves. The liberal-minded middle class, the intelligentsia, and even the academic world, see that [something] is wrong and, you know, ‘We’ll campaign for something to be done – but hang on! we’re not so sure that we want to disrupt the status quo, because it’s OK for us.’
Would it not be fair to say that Corbyn was manifestly not cut out to be leader of the Opposition, let alone prime minister? He was an exemplary ‘signpost’, as Benn would put it,19‘I have divided politicians into two categories: the signposts and the weathercocks. The signpost says: “This is the way we should go,” and you don’t have to follow them but if you come back in 10 years’ time the signpost is still there. The weathercock hasn’t got an opinion until they’ve looked at the polls, talked to the focus groups, discussed it with the spin doctors’ (youtube.com). but you need to be more than that to lead the country, don’t you?
Yes, you do. You need to be more than an individual who inspires. Jeremy is an incredible man – I think he’s changed British politics forever – but, to be a leader (and, without sounding too arrogant, I’ve been a leader in a very large, powerful union), you need on occasions to be decisive; and he wasn’t capable of that. And, unfortunately, it led ultimately to his downfall on Brexit.
You used to believe in unilateral nuclear disarmament before you became general secretary of Unite. Now that you’ve retired, have you reverted to that position?
That’s a really good question! I’ve never been pressed on that.
[As general secretary,] I was won over by the arguments that we need a just transition away from nuclear weapons but it should be on the basis of protecting jobs and communities. I believe that is a powerful moral argument. If you were to wave a magic wand and vanish nuclear weapons just like that, the whole of Cumbria would be a wasteland.
So, I believe in defence diversification; but if you asked me, would I join a CND march tomorrow, no, I wouldn’t. I understand the practicalities – and it would be somewhat hypocritical of me to do so, you know, so quickly after leaving power.
Are you going to miss the power you used to wield?
No. No, I’m genuinely not. To be honest, it will give me time to catch up on my reading.
I’ve read that you love reading poetry.
I came to Shakespeare and poetry in my twenties. I wasn’t allowed to do English literature at A-level because I’d failed my English language O-level twice before I passed; but I used to sit in on the English literature class in the Sixth Form.
Shakespeare and poetry for me just evokes so many different emotions. Whenever I go away on holiday, I always take a poetry book with me.
|⇑1||Always Red (OR Books, 2021)|
|⇑2||A contender for the Labour leadership in 2010 and 2015, interviewed for High Profile in March 2011|
|⇑4||In an interview with Woman’s Own published in November 1987, Margaret Thatcher said: ‘We have gone through a period when too many people have been given to understand “I have a problem; it is the Government’s job to deal with it.” So, they are casting their problems on society. And who is society? There is no such thing. There are individual men and women and there are families, and no government can do anything except through people – and people look to themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then also to look after our neighbour and life is a reciprocal business and people have got the entitlements too much in mind without the obligations, because there is no such thing as an entitlement unless someone has first met an obligation.’|
|⇑5||Interviewed for High Profile in August 2004|
|⇑6||‘They see themselves whenever possible as victims, and resent their victim status; yet at the same time they wallow in it. Part of this flawed psychological state is that they cannot accept that they might have made any contribution to their misfortunes, but seek rather to blame someone else for it, thereby deepening their sense of shared tribal grievance against the rest of society’ (editorial in the Spectator, 16 October 2004).|
|⇑15||‘The idea of leverage is to show a hostile employer that we can impose consequences on them that will cost more than whatever they’re hoping to gain by screwing their workforce. … Leverage is an explosive tactic that is not to be used lightly. It’s for when an employer is already in an aggressive posture’ (Always Red, p289).|
|⇑16||Interviewed for High Profile in June 2015|
|⇑17||Interviewed for High Profile in August 1996|
|⇑18||Interviewed for High Profile in June 2005|
|⇑19||‘I have divided politicians into two categories: the signposts and the weathercocks. The signpost says: “This is the way we should go,” and you don’t have to follow them but if you come back in 10 years’ time the signpost is still there. The weathercock hasn’t got an opinion until they’ve looked at the polls, talked to the focus groups, discussed it with the spin doctors’ (youtube.com).|
Len McCluskey was born in Liverpool in 1950. He attended the Cardinal Godfrey Technical High School, a grammar school in Anfield, which he left in 1968 with A-levels in history, economics and general studies.
He was offered a place to train as a teacher at Newman College of Higher Education (now University) in Birmingham, but opted instead for a job as a ship’s planner with the Port of Liverpool Stevedore Company (which was soon after absorbed by the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company).
He joined the Transport and General Workers’ Union on his first day at work. He became a shop steward in 1969, and was involved in unionising the white-collar staff on the Liverpool docks.
In 1979, he was employed by the TGWU as the official for the Association of Clerical, Technical and Supervisory Staff. He was the union’s campaign organiser throughout the 1980s.
He was elected national secretary of the TGWU’s general workers’ trade group in 1990 and moved to London to work in the union’s national headquarters. In 2004, he became the TGWU’s national organiser for the service industries.
In 2007, after the union merged with Amicus to form Unite the Union, he was appointed as the new organisation’s assistant general secretary for industrial strategy.
In 2010, he ran for election as general secretary and won a four-horse race with some 101,000 votes on a 16% turnout. He took office on the first day of 2011. He was re-elected in 2013 with 144,570 votes on a turnout of 15.2%.
He resigned as general secretary towards the end of 2016 in order to stand again. He defeated two other candidates, with a winning margin of fewer than 6,000 votes on a turnout of 12.2%. He retired in August 2021.
He sat on the TUC’s general council and executive committee from 2007 to 2021.
He is the author of two books: Why You Should Be a Trade Unionist (2020) and his autobiography, Always Red (2021).
He has been married twice and has four children.
Up-to-date as at 1 February 2022