Len McCluskey, the general secretary of Unite, has warned it will be difficult to encourage trade unionists to vote for staying in the European Union even though he officially backs Britain remaining a member.
McCluskey confirmed for the first time that he will argue for the UK to remain in the EU and that he would personally vote to stay in, during a speech at the German ambassador’s London residence.
Unite itself has not confirmed whether it will officially campaign in the EU referendum although it describes itself as a pro-EU union and will debate the issue at a meeting within days.
The Unite chief had previously suggested the union could switch sides and back Brexit if David Cameron had attacked worker rights in his renegotiation, but it is now expected to keep its pro-EU position.
Expressing his personal opinions, McCluskey said life outside of the EU would be worse for UK working people left to the mercy of a governing Conservative party.
But he also made clear he was not voting for the status quo or David Cameron’s deal with Brussels that will cut benefits for working migrants and bring in greater protections for the City of London.
In remarks likely to concern the remain campaign, McCluskey claimed it will be difficult to enthuse Unite’s 1.4 million members to turn out and vote on the same side as the prime minister given the government’s attacks on trade unions and failure to address falling living standards.
“I’m a supporter of the EU but when I vote for Britain to remain in the EU in June, I will not be voting for the status quo – let me be clear about that,” he said.
“I will not be voting for the EU which has sought to impose eye-watering austerity, at the expense of the ordinary citizen not the rich, but on Ireland, Greece, Spain, Portugal and elsewhere. I will not be voting for the EU which is seeking to stitch-up a pro-big business trade deal – TTIP – behind the backs of the people of Europe.
“Above all, I will not be voting for David Cameron’s renegotiation package – a deal designed to protect the financial interests in the City of London which control the Conservative party and to pander to anti-migrant and anti-welfare sentiment. It is disappointing to see how eager European governments were to accommodate him, in stark contrast to the reception given to [Alexis] Tsipras of Greece last year.”
McCluskey’s position appears to be close to that of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who is in favour of Britain staying in the EU but has repeatedly attacked Cameron’s new settlement with Brussels.
He said it was tempting to make the most of Cameron’s troubles and reliance of the remain camp to win the votes of trade unionists, but cautioned that the bigger picture was more important.
“Tempting as it is to make the most of a situation like this, it falls to us in the labour movement to behave in a more statesmanlike way, and to look at the bigger issues. Nevertheless, make no mistake, persuading Unite members to vote for a campaign led by such an overtly hostile and anti-democratic government will be a challenge,” he said.
In a series of critical remarks about the EU, he said many people believe it is a “big business club” and the institution has been in a “tunnel marked austerity” for the last eight years.
He also asked how “any European – any human indeed – be happy at Europe’s handling of the refugee crisis”?
“A Europe freed from the rule of the accountant that can speak to the hope of a better life for all – now, that’s a Europe worth voting for,” he said.