Len McCluskey is big in size and influence, but his voice is soft and his messaging simple. The country’s top trade union leader, the boss of Unite was ‘what won it’ for Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour leadership, as the undisputed power broker in left-wing politics, with 1.5 million members. Whatever you think of him, his views count, so it’s interesting to talk to him about Jews, Israel, beating up anti-Semites, talking to terrorists, and what Jeremy Corbyn would do as prime minister. I ask how long we have. “As long as it takes,” he says. The others can wait.
We start on Trump’s Jerusalem embassy announcement – “not in the slightest bit helpful to Israel” – although he understands why Netanyahu would welcome it. His main issue is that “it makes the process of bringing both parties together – of peace – that much further away”. Has the US relinquished its role as peace broker? “I think so. I mean, how can [Trump] offer an olive branch to both Israel and the Palestinians and say ‘come to Camp David’ when he has done this? Even when Russia recognised West Jerusalem, I think the world sees East Jerusalem as a legitimate Palestinian area. I just think this is so sad. It makes peace more difficult.”
The British government criticised it, to no effect, just as it does Israeli settlement building, so what would a Jeremy Corbyn government do differently, if anything? Nobody has a magic wand, he says, adding that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is perhaps the world’s biggest problem today. “It’s about trying to create a process, climate and culture where people can sit down and – in a reasonable and realistic fashion – try to see if there’s a way forward.” To that end, he says Labour should recognise a State of Palestine, because “we all agree about a two-state solution,” although he acknowledges growing calls for a one-state solution.
He says he came to the recent Jewish News-BICOM conference on Israel and the Middle East and took away the key message of a Palestinian Authority spokesman, who in essence asked: “Do you really think those who come after us will be as moderate as us? He was making the point that the more this conflict goes on, the greater resentment is built up by the Palestinians, and the new breed of people coming through to represent them will be that much more radical”.
An optimist, McCluskey says he was also encouraged by Sir Malcolm Rifkind’s “outstanding” contribution at the same conference, in particular the point he made challenging the seemingly intractable problem of 500,000 settlers living beyond the Green Line. “He said ‘look, that’s not as big a problem as you might think, because the vast majority of settlers are close to the Israeli borders, in other words yes, you would need to move the borders from the ’67 boundaries, but if people are genuinely looking for a settlement, an agreement, then there’s got to be give and take. He was also making the point about the other settlements, saying that if there was an agreement, some may want to go back to Israel – and may need financial support to do so – while others might say ‘no, we’re happy to stay where we are, in a Palestinian state.’ So I was encouraged by that.”
For me, it really is a question of good men and women trying to sit down and resolve what appears to be an intractable problem. But I live with optimism.”
“..For me, it [Israeli-Palestinian conflict] really is a question of good men and women trying to sit down and resolve what appears to be an intractable problem. But I live with optimism..”
By good men and women sitting down and talking, does he mean Hamas? Over the next few minutes he never directly affirms this, but the blindingly, painfully and overwhelmingly obvious conclusion from what he says is that yes, of course you must talk to Hamas, because how else do you get sufficient buy-in if those deemed ‘terrorists’ have the popular support of millions of Palestinians? Growing up in Liverpool, where Irish politics were so prevalent, he says he never thought they’d resolve it, but reminds us that Margaret Thatcher’s government spoke to both the IRA and the Ulster Freedom Fighters in a process that eventually led to the Good Friday Agreement. “So history tells us somebody’s got to speak,” he says. “You’ve got to talk, whether it’s formally or informally, to those individuals who appear to have the support of lots of ordinary Palestinians… Do you just ignore them? I don’t think you can… I see it as being a necessary process in finding a solution to this question.”
We wander over the wreckage of the Priti Patel affair (he’s not concerned about it and says MPs shouldn’t be discouraged from going to Israel) as well as British government funding for agencies and charities working in the West Bank and Gaza. Would a Corbyn government increase funding to the Palestinians? Surprisingly, McCluskey doesn’t argue for a straightforward splurge, saying instead: “It depends very much on the purpose of it. As you pointed out before, governments make statements of condemnation but nothing changes. In Israel, we still have the occupied lands, although some pro-Israelis use the term ‘disputed’ land. So you can’t in effect take a single element – whether it’s the Department for International Development (DfID) or anything else – in the Israeli question.”
Corbyn would be “as committed as anyone to doing the right thing, to supporting DfID and other organisations, certainly medical charities,” he says. “But it would be in the context of him seeking an honourable solution, not just paying lip-service. As you said, if a British government condemns the settlements, the Israeli government knows they don’t really mean it. They think ‘so what?’ I think with Corbyn there would be a genuine wish, with pressure and influence, to make both sides sit up.”
Does Britain still have that role, does he think? “Given the historical role of Balfour and all the rest of it, yes, I do think Britain has a role. It’s almost a moral obligation, a duty to continue to bring both parties together. Of course 100 years ago Britain had an empire and ruled the waves, as it were, but I think it’s perfectly legitimate for Britain to give a lead and to influence other countries, including America, and to adopt a line and a road-map that might bring about a settlement.”
Would Corbyn prioritise it more than other prime ministers? “Probably, yes, although he’ll have a huge amount of other priorities. But whereas past prime ministers have only paid lip-service to the situation, Jeremy would want to do more. He doesn’t have a magic wand but I think he’d want to pay more attention to it, and he should do.” Would the Israelis listen to him? “You’d hope so, but it depends what he was saying. Good people to sit down and talk about realistic solutions. The word ‘realistic’ is a lovely thing, it might mean different things to different people, but the truth is that realpolitik is about dealing with issues now, not debating a complex history going back a long, long time.” What he says next surprises me. “I think the opposite question is: would the Palestinians listen to him? In the process of attaining a solution, there may be proposals that are unpalatable to the Palestinians, unpalatable to Hamas. Would they listen to him? I think he would have some purchase in speaking to them, and I would hope in the context of that the Israelis would respond likewise and listen.”
“..In the process of attaining a solution, there may be proposals that are unpalatable to the Palestinians, unpalatable to Hamas. Would they listen to him [Corbyn]? I think he would have some purchase in speaking to them…”
Hamas covered, we’re onto anti-Semitism – “one of the main reasons I’m speaking to you now”. He’s keen not to be misunderstood, and clarifies. He hadn’t said there was no anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, as reported, just that in 47 years he hadn’t seen any. “My position is crystal clear: if you’re anti-Semitic you cannot be a member of the Labour Party. They’re incompatible. My message to any anti-Semite is: get out of our party. Likewise my message to the Jewish community is: come back to Labour. If you’ve had any doubts, dispel them. Labour is your natural political home. I want Jewish people to feel at home in the Labour Party. To that extent I reflect back on the incredible traditions of the Jewish community. The progressive nature of Jews has always meant that the Labour Party was naturally their home. That’s why lots have felt uneasy about issues of anti-Semitism.” My concern was that there were individuals within the party trying to use the issue of anti-Semitism and misogyny to undermine Jeremy Corbyn, to create an image that Labour was toxic, when that was simply false. Those people were trying to weaponise anti-Semitism, not to challenge anti-Semitism, but to undermine Corbyn, and I was appalled at that.”
McCluskey has read, and is thoroughly familiar with, Shami Chakrabarti’s investigation and conclusions, derided at the time by some in the Jewish community as a whitewash. “It’s a first-class report,” he says. “It effectively says the Labour Party is the home for all minority communities who have been abused in the past and although she doesn’t use this language, it was very evident to me that it was a call for Jewish people who have got concerns to come home to Labour. But she went on to make references to language and how to deal with it, how to change rules, all of which have been embraced by Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party.”
Could Corbyn have done any more? “I don’t think so. I genuinely don’t. He’s been fighting racism and discrimination all his life. The idea that Jeremy Corbyn would tolerate any discrimination, even for a second, it’s just not in the man at all. It’s not in his DNA. But of course in a huge party with 600,000 members, people feel they can say what they like on social media. The only thing the leader of a party can do is say ‘right, we’ll investigate and make certain first of all there’s zero tolerance towards anti-Semitic language or behaviour and secondly, that we set up procedures to do that. Shami’s report deals with process, with the length of time it takes for people to be investigated and dealt with, with the type of penalties that can be implemented, all that, so I don’t think Corbyn could have done any more.”
“..Given the historical role of Balfour and all the rest of it, yes, I do think Britain has a role. It’s almost a moral obligation, a duty to continue to bring both parties together..”
Where is the Unite leader on the question of anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism and that blurred middle-ground? “It centres around, and is blurred to an extent, by the definition and usage of the term Zionism. ‘I’m an anti-Zionist,’ ‘I’m a pro-Zionist’ – what does it actually mean? I support the creation of a Jewish homeland in Israel. I support the ’48 creation of a Jewish homeland – that’s a Zionist position. So you could say I’m a Zionist. But I don’t support the settlements in the occupied territories, whereas many Zionists do, and modern Zionism embraces the encroachment into Palestinian territory, which I’m opposed to that. So does that make me an anti-Zionist? That’s why it’s not a term I use, because there’s no agreed definition, and there’s an element of confusion, especially on the left of our movement.”
Talking of definitions, what does he make of the new International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition that Labour recently signed up to? “It has nuances in it,” he says, revealing the code word for his disagreement. “A lot of the definition I would agree with… some of it is more complex and nuanced. This is about dealing with an incredibly important subject that is not easily defined as black and white and trying to deal with that in a way that has an element of common sense to it, and also a very clear common purpose that there’ll be no excuses for anti-Semitic language, there’ll be a zero tolerance of it, and individuals should be kicked out of the party if they are engaged in it in a protracted way.”
We speak about Jewish Labour Movement and the new group Jewish Voice for Labour and how they both have different views not just on Israel but on what constitutes anti-Semitism today. With that in mind, what does McCluskey make of those who say the definition goes a step too far, and risks conflating anti-Semitism with criticism of Israel? Does he worry about the effects on free speech? “Yes, absolutely, you can be against the actions of the Israeli government – and I’m implacably opposed to the Israeli government’s behaviour in terms of Palestine, in terms of the West Bank, in terms of Gaza – but I would absolutely deny that that is anti-Semitic. I’ve fought against anti-Semitism all my life, and when I say ‘fought’ I mean physically, on the streets, in my younger days.” Not Cable Street? “Not quite,” he says, laughing, “but Jeremy Corbyn’s parents were there!”
Back to the point, he says he is “worried” about the seemingly expanding definition of anti-Semitism, warning against “killing the essence of free speech,” adding: “It is perfectly legitimate for people to argue that the Israeli government is doing what it’s been forced to do because of the constant attacks on it. Likewise, it’s equally legitimate for people to adopt the opposite position without it being seen as anti-Semitic. Debates happen. Again, Shami covers that brilliantly in her report. As a human rights lawyer and activist, she’s fought all her life for the importance of free speech. And therein lies my concern, my unease, about how people who are pro-Israeli, and who don’t think Israel can do any harm whatsoever, deliberately try to link criticism of that government with anti-Semitism. That is outrageous. Equally outrageous are those people who are not interested in the Israeli government or the Jewish people but who want to use anything to try to discredit Corbyn and Labour. That is reprehensible and we should flush it out of our media.”
“It is perfectly legitimate for people to argue that the Israeli government is doing what it’s been forced to do because of the constant attacks on it. Likewise, it’s equally legitimate for people to adopt the opposite position without it being seen as anti-Semitic..”
He’s in full swing, and says The Times and The Telegraph “used” the anti-Semitism scandal. It reminds me of when he spoke about repeated incidents being “mood music,” inferring the creation of anti-Semitic scandals to undermine the leadership. The phrase itself caused problems, which he addresses. “I recognise that the terminology ‘mood music’ can be taken the wrong way,” he says. “I was accused of trying to trivialise the issue of anti-Semitism. I would never do that. I would genuinely never do that. The point I was making is that there were people – maybe within the Jewish community, maybe, but certainly not exclusively – who were looking to undermine Corbyn. It wasn’t just the issue of anti-Semitism. Remember there was a huge furore kicked up, supported by the British media, about misogyny… The strategy was to try to say the Labour Party is toxic, the nasty party, and it’s only happened under Corbyn because he’s a weak leader and the party is basically breaking up.”
With neither breath nor break, he continues: “The truth of the matter is that the issue of anti-Semitism has been in the party for many years, including under Miliband, Brown, Blair, and going back. It’s the level – it’s the question of how serious is it and how are we dealing with it. So there’s no doubt in my mind that people were attempting to use it to undermine Corbyn and I find that reprehensible – not opposing it, not highlighting it, not bringing it to the attention of people, because not only is that legitimate, it’s people’s duty, but using it for a different agenda. We mentioned JLM? They of course have been around since the beginning of the party. My union is keen to work with JLM,” he says, his eyes glazing over. “In fact we’ve met their leaders. JLM seem to be more conservative in their criticism of the Israeli government.”
“…I was accused of trying to trivialise the issue of anti-Semitism. I would never do that. I would genuinely never do that. The point I was making is that there were people ..who were looking to undermine Corbyn. ..”
Suddenly, his face comes alive. “Now, Jewish Voice for Labour, which only formed at the recent Labour Party conference – I’m very, very attracted to dealing with them. We’ve already met them, but they’re coming under attack and criticism for saying ‘we’re Jewish members of the Labour Party and JLM don’t speak for us, so we’ve created our own group where we’ll speak for ourselves.’ I think that’s fantastic because it’s easy for me to make comments anti-Semitism, or racism, or Islamophobia, or sexism, but I’m not a woman, I’m not a black person or an ethnic minority, and I’m not Jewish. When groups of individuals form and speak, they speak with the authority. I went to the Jewish Voice for Labour fringe meeting, which was packed out. I listened and thought my God – the speakers are saying everything I believe in! So yes, I am going to develop our relationship with JVL, I think it’s a positive move forward.”
The very different view-points of JVL and JLM in a sense goes to the nub of a problem the Jewish community has had with Corbyn’s Labour, namely its approach to Israel and Palestine. With several past prime ministers having been very pro-Israel, the Jewish community is now faced with the prospect of someone who has campaigned against Israel for almost 30 years. Doesn’t McCluskey think this is at least in part responsible for the community’s shift away from Labour?
“No, I don’t. The Jewish community that’ll read your newspaper, of course they’re concerned about Israel, but there are many Jewish people who are opposed to the Israeli government. Remember, the Jewish community is also concerned about where they live, the lack of housing, insecure jobs, the abuse of workers, our children’s future. That’s why Labour is their natural home, and in particular Corbyn.”
“..Corbyn, if he was the prime minister, I don’t see him being anti-Israeli..”
But won’t he be anti-Israel? “Corbyn, if he was the prime minister, I don’t see him being anti-Israeli,” says the man who will do all he can to help put him in Number 10. “You mentioned about previous prime ministers being pro-Israeli. Their pro-Israeli stance has not brought peace an inch closer. Israelis still live in fear of a suicide bomber blowing women and children up in Tel Aviv. They still have the continued pressure and criticism. Those previous prime ministers have done nothing for that. I see the prospect of Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister as having an ability to present options and arguments that might get both sides listening to him. As regards his rise to power, it was driven by his anti-austerity platform. Palestine played a very small, insignificant part in that. And anti-austerity speaks to anyone. It speaks to Jewish working class, Jewish middle-class who’ve done well and moved on. It speaks to the whole of our nation, and Jewish people are no different. They know that if our nation is not cohesive and working together and prospering then all of us suffer.” His pace, rhythm and intonation all suggest another pitch.
“It’s why I’m so passionate to say to my Jewish brothers and sisters who have doubts about Labour to come home, help us built a better Britain, help us mend our broken communities, help us build a cohesiveness within our society that raises us all to a higher level.”
“..The real issue is: should the boycott just be the occupied territories. One difficulty is that stuff from the occupied territories is stamped ‘Made in Israel,’ not ‘Made in the West Bank,’ so I would like to see better labelling..”
Would that involve Prime Minister Corbyn boycotting Israel? “The issue of boycotts and disinvestment is a controversial one. Often in history it is brought about because people feel a wrong is happening and there’s no other option they have. I was involved in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. People said that it’s wrong [to boycott] because it hurts everybody, but what else could we do? I feel exactly the same about the occupied territories. The real issue is: should the boycott just be the occupied territories. One difficulty is that stuff from the occupied territories is stamped ‘Made in Israel,’ not ‘Made in the West Bank,’ so I would like to see better labelling. I would also like to see a better response (from Israel).”
He returns to the theme of “good men and women coming together,” and says they need “to deal with an incredibly difficult subject in a practical manner, recognising what has happened. It’s no good people thinking they can turn back 100, 200 years, because you can’t, you’ve got to deal with what you have at the moment.” I think he’s talking about the Palestinians here, but before I can make up my mind he’s off again.
“I think the British government has been sadly lacking. I can’t think of a single initiative that they’ve ever been involved in that has assisted the process. It speaks to all kinds of things. Islamic radicalism uses the state of the Palestinians, so it impacts on us all, so you should try to do something, but British governments in the past have done nothing. I suspect there are many, many, many Jewish people both here, around the world and in Israel who would welcome a Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn who might seek to navigate through these treacherous waters by speaking to both sides in the hopes that they listen.”
“…I suspect there are many, many, many Jewish people both here, around the world and in Israel who would welcome a Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn.. “
That’s a novel idea, Len. So where in this vision do boycotts come into it? For this first time in 50 minutes he looks off balance. “Look, it is, it is a subject that I, and I wouldn’t, I’m not speaking for Jeremy Corbyn here. Remember the Labour Party is a democratic organisation, it is not a single individual who wakes up and decides on policy, so I can see a very nuanced approach by the Labour Party to the issue of boycotts. The current campaign to boycott the settlements is there. I understand it. I support it. The complications of that then being an Israeli boycott is much more difficult and much more in need of debate and discussion.” Does Unite boycott just the settlements or Israel as a whole? “No, we don’t boycott Israel as a whole, we just support the campaign.” He’s floundering, and I’m lost. What does it mean to say you don’t boycott Israel but support the campaign to do so?
Before I can stop him, he’s off again, a very intelligent man in full flow. He’s trying to tell me something vitally important, which is that even if Jeremy Corbyn wanted to boycott Israel, he wouldn’t. “Corbyn would give it more priority, and his aim would be to seek a peaceful roadmap. Now in determining that, for him to adopt an anti-Israeli position kills the roadmap right away. I think he’d be clever enough – and he’s a lovely man, a very genuine, decent, honest man, a very intelligent man – I think he’d be intelligent enough to know that if Britain was going to attempt to be a leader in an honest broker situation he’d be careful in what Labour did in relation to boycotting Israel or adopting an anti-Israeli stance, and that is different to disagreeing with the Israeli government.”
Just going back to boycotts, I get the impression Len isn’t sold hook, line and sinker. What about this this cultural boycott, this awkward space. What does he think of boycotting academics, or scientists, or dancers? “I think you’re right, it is a grey area. The idea of boycotting individual Israelis who are academics – although it depends what they’ve done – is something that I feel uncomfortable about. It doesn’t seem to me to strike at the issue. With South Africa, we were committed to the idea that a boycott means a boycott, no exceptions.” Yet just when you think he’s back-tracking on BDS, he says: “It’s because people feel so enraged at what they perceive as an injustice so what we’ve got in the occupied territories with the Palestinians at the moment. People are enraged, including Jewish people. Jewish communities have suffered immensely over the years. If any group knows about discrimination and repression it’s Jewish people, so I would ask people to understand the nature of this boycott campaign. It’s driven by an absolute passion that this injustice is taking place and nobody seems to be doing anything about it.”
“…The idea of boycotting individual Israelis who are academics – although it depends what they’ve done – is something that I feel uncomfortable about..”
Fine, but critics say it delegitimises the State of Israel – does he agree? “No, I absolutely disagree with that,” he says. “The State of Israel exists, it is recognised by everyone. It is a sovereign nation. Of course critics would say it undermines it but I disagree that the BDS campaign delegitimises Israel.”
We drift back to the Jewish News-BICOM conference, and he picks up on something that was said, about 57 Arab and Muslim nations recognising Israel, and says he wants to look into it a bit more, “because I always disagreed with the Arab League who would not recognise Israel. It legitimised the Israelis saying ‘look, we’re surrounded by 200 million Arabs who want to obliterate us – that’s why we defend ourselves.’ Given everything that happened, in the Holocaust, if I’d have been a young Jewish person at the end of the war I know what I’d have been fighting for, and then having got it I’d want to defend it. So if there’s a whole host of Arab nations around Israel [that recognise it], there needs to be give-and-take. I suspect Netanyahu and others think ‘well we’ll just continue with the settlement expansion, conquest by concrete, and eventually we’ll get there.” He sighs heavily and dramatically, as if the sigh itself were a sentence. “No, you’ve got to say that’s wrong, there must be another way.”
From complexity to confusion, I ask him about Ken Livingstone’s comments, which McCluskey has described as extraordinary, but which most Jews described as something else. I say it’s good to see due process but how does the decision not to expel him tally with McCluskey’s own forthright “get thee hence” half an hour ago? Had he not just given a long and loud sigh, I imagine he’d have initiated one here.
“First of all, I said it was an extraordinary and bizarre outburst and distanced myself from it. Why the hell anyone could start to talk about Hitler supporting Zionism and then to start being clever about historical meetings, it was just bizarre and I was pleased Jeremy Corbyn distanced himself from it and suspended Ken and then went through due process. I don’t know then what has happened in terms of Ken’s appeal, I don’t know what things were taken into account, and I don’t know where we’re up to with it.” Hang on, might he still be kicked out? “No, it’s not over yet. It’s far from a done deal. It’s still going on. But therein lies the reasons behind the Shami Chakrabarti inquiry. Jeremy Corbyn wasn’t comfortable with the issues that were coming up and wanted them investigated, but the rules that we have prevent even the leader from intervening, and that’s right, because if he did that he’d be in all kinds of trouble, cutting across procedures.”
“…Why the hell anyone could start to talk about Hitler supporting Zionism and then to start being clever about historical meetings, it was just bizarre and I was pleased Jeremy Corbyn distanced himself from it and suspended Ken…”
Fine, but back to my question: was Len surprised by the decision? “Let me say this to you: I don’t believe Ken Livingstone is an anti-Semite. I don’t know him well, he’s not a friend, but I’ve watched him over the years and it doesn’t sit that this is a guy who’s an anti-Semite because he’s always been at the forefront of opposing it. Ken wants to try to defend himself on the basis that there’s some historical truth to it.” No doubt he does, but is it ever defensible? “Not only is it not defensible, it’s almost an utter irrelevance. I’m not sufficiently qualified to know whether leaders of the Zionist movement met Hitler or met his people in the mid-30s, all I know is that the Nazis tried to exterminate six million Jews and more! So to even reflect on a meeting that may have taken place in the mid-30s is utter nonsense, ridiculous, beyond belief, and I am at a loss as to know why Ken would do that.
“What the penalty is for that, we’d have to go through due process, but when I say my message to anti-Semites is get out of my party, you’re not wanted, there’s no place for you here, go join another party but whatever you do get out of my party, I mean it. If people want to reflect that onto Ken, I honestly don’t think he’s an anti-Semite. But what do you do with somebody who has made the most bizarre and ridiculous comments? Shami Chakrabarti speaks to that in her report. There are different levels of offence. Some are consistently anti-Semitic. They obviously need to be shifted out. Others stereotype Jewish people. They in my opinion should be out too. Others are anti-Zionist, make comments against the Israeli government and link it in a way. And then there are people like Livingstone. So I’d ask your readers to try to understand that these are the kind of levels we’re dealing with.”
I’m not going to get any more out of him on Ken, so I ask about the Unite chief of staff Andrew Murray’s recent comments suggesting George Galloway should be readmitted into Labour, but again get short shrift. No matter. I’ve had well over an hour with one of British politics most influential figures, talking about complex issues no senior Corbyn clansman has so far broached to this extent in public, so it seems only fair to get Len’s final thoughts on the most interesting element of all this – his personal plea to Jews to “come back.” He doesn’t need asking twice. “Come back. This is the party of Jewish people. You must come back. You must come back and help us achieve a better Britain. You must come back and help us challenge these anti-Semites. And you must come back and argue on policy issues that you might disagree on that might impact on the State of Israel as well.”