Airbus has become Britain’s first major manufacturer to announce it could leave the UK over Brexit, saying that in “any scenario” Brexit would have “severe negative consequences” for the business.
The jobs of over 12,000 Unite the union members now hang in the balance. As well as 7,000 members at Airbus plants in Broughton and Filton, 2,500 work for the firm’s biggest supplier GKN and another 2,500 are employed at Belfast’s troubled Bombardier plant that produces Airbus components.
While Len McCluskey has always openly opposed Brexit, he has until now refrained from pushing Labour in the same direction, knowing that it risks opening a series of splits between Labour MPs, members and Jeremy Corbyn who is instinctively Eurosceptic. It was for that reason that Unite helped block a vote on the party’s Brexit policy at last year’s conference.
Instead McCluskey has used his union’s influence to defend Jeremy Corbyn from his internal and external critics, going so far as to deny the party’s antisemitism problem and name Labour MPs he considers enemies of the leadership.
Now he will face renewed calls from inside his own union to push Labour towards a stronger anti-Brexit position to save jobs. His suggestion that Labour should instead wait to reject any Brexit deal put forward by Theresa May to trigger an election could simply come too late to save his members’ jobs.
McCluskey once ridiculed the idea that working rights and trade unions would be strengthened by leaving the European Union, but that is exactly what Jeremy Corbyn has promised from a Labour-led Brexit. Where McCluskey called Brexit “playing Russian roulette with our industrial base”, Jeremy Corbyn insists that ditching EU state aid rules would see cash pumped into manufacturing.
Now McCluskey’s members could force him to revisit these differences with Corbyn in a test of his priorities.