Lunch with Len McCluskey, union baron (and Downton fan)

Len McCluskey at the Gay Hussar

I've never met Len McCluskey before, but I spot him immediately, gawping and giggling at a cartoon drawing of himself hung on the wall of the Gay Hussar, a Soho restaurant he's chosen for our lunch.

"I look like Roy Hattersley."

He's smiling but I don't think he's that pleased, and it's undeniable, there are similarities.

This place is a regular haunt for hacks and politicians. He saw Michael Portillo here - he says there was a time when he was "Thatcher's golden boy," but he's become a "softer person".

He's also an unlikely fan of Downton Abbey: "It's a bit sanitised but, you do reflect this paternalistic approach to society … a paternalism which was part of, I suppose, trying to share the wealth."

So far this union baron is not living up to his public image; Red Len, Firebrand.

We order crispy duck, (he isn't a crispy duck person, he ordered it because it seemed a good idea) and water, plain tap water.

He's watching what he eats because he has bad habits, grabbing lunch - which is often a pork pie.

He grew up in Liverpool in what he calls "a two-up, two-down, Coronation Street house, toilet in the back yard, with a bath stuck to the wall".

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* Listen to Becky Milligan's interview with Len McCluskey on BBC Radio 4's PM programme, which is broadcast from 5pm on Thursday. Or listen back on iPlayer.

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"They've long since been demolished, rat infested, it was the norm, that was the neighbourhood I grew up in."

His memory of his childhood is one of happiness. His parents were both Liverpudlians. His father worked on the docks and he adored his mother. She died a few years back, aged 96.

Downton Abbey ITV's Downton Abbey has been a ratings hit with its tales of early 20th Century aristocratic life

"I suspect part of the reason why my childhood was good was because I did have an older brother, who I never knew, he died when he was three, of consumption, during the war.

"Of course my dad had only seen his son, six times, I think, and the sixth time he came home to bury him. I then came along as a surprise and was therefore a little bit mollycoddled as a kid. "

It was only near the end of his mother's life that she spoke about his brother's death. "As she drew closer to death she remembered him more and talked about joining him and meeting up with him."

He takes in a sharp breath, and hesitates. "If I get a bit … if I get a bit emotional here, forgive me."

The waiter takes our plates and we move onto less emotional territory, the Labour Party.

'Never threatening'

In 2010, Ed Miliband won the leadership contest with the help of union backing. So how much influence does Len have?

Does Ed Miliband listen to him? I ask if he sometimes gets a bit threatening and says, "look we're not going to associate with you any more if you don't do as I say?"

"No, never threatening."

I point out that I didn't mean it literally. He does accept he has power and influence: "Yeah, undoubtedly because I am the general secretary of Unite."

Len McCluskey Len McCluskey, seated, after his Labour conference speech

But how do they get along behind the scenes?

"He's a decent man, err..."

"You like him, you get on well?"

"Ermmm … I … I …," he slightly laughs.

"I mean do you have a laugh together?" He appears to be struggling.

"I'm not sure the last time we had a laugh to be blunt, and I don't really know him well enough to say I like him."

"You back him don't you?"

"Yeah, any talk about is he the right guy, it really doesn't enter our vocabulary. You know Ed, and I hope this doesn't happen, could get run over by a bus tomorrow, it really wouldn't matter who takes his place."

Be braver

I ask: "The leadership of the Labour Party doesn't matter?"

"No, what matters is the policies. You know we've been saying this to Ed since he became elected. Labour have got to show they're on the side of ordinary, working people.

"If he does that, he'll be the next prime minster, if he fails to do that, then of course, he'll be defeated and he'll be replaced as the leader."

It is clear from this conversation that the union boss is not entirely behind the Labour Leader Ed Miliband.

He wants him and Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor, to be braver, less fearful, he says.

After the Labour Party conference, he said that "inspiration is something Ed Miliband doesn't do, what is more important is thoughtful". Who then, in the Shadow Cabinet, is inspiring?

"Is this the part when there is a deathly silence…." He bursts out laughing.

UKIP threat

He's joking I think. But he continues: "To be honest with you the person who impresses me most, at the moment, is Andy Burnham."

We order coffee, I suggest custard, he declines.

What about UKIP, does he see them as a threat to Labour? It's now I detect a hint of panic in his voice.

He says that, a year ago, he warned the Labour leadership that it was his belief UKIP were a concern for Labour as well as the Tories.

"But at the moment, we see a lot of listening but not a great deal of change. Who knows what could happen, look at Heywood [the recent Heywood and Middleton by-election]. I mean, we were in spitting distance of losing a safe Labour seat. That is why UKIP have got to be challenged."

To lighten the mood I request a song, he's a karaoke fan. "You're going to have me singing on the radio and I've only been drinking water?"

After reluctant laugher, he does. His favourite song, In My Life, The Beatles, and it's in tune, and pretty good.

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