The Unite general secretary vowed to oppose attempts to extend freedom of movement even though delegates at the Labour conference in September voted overwhelmingly to reject the party’s previous manifesto pledge to introduce restrictions after Brexit. Mr McCluskey also urged shadow cabinet members not to contradict Labour’s Brexit position during the election campaign and and warned them to keep quiet about which way they would campaign in a second referendum under a Labour government.
He told the Guardian: “We will have to see what’s in the manifesto but I don’t think what conference voted for is a sensible approach and I will be expressing that view.”
He said he was keen to bolster Labour support in marginal seats in the Midlands and the north which has been targeted by the Tories and the Brexit Party but warned white working-class Leave voters would turn to hard-right party if their migration concerns were ignored.
Mr McCluskey said Labour had to show how it was going to prevent pay and conditions from being undercut before it could consider easing its free movement policy.
He said: “It’s wrong in my view to have any greater free movement of labour unless you get stricter labour market regulation.”
Labour bosses plan to meet on Saturday to sign off the party’s election manifesto and the timing of Mr McCluskey’s comments has enraged activists who campaigned for the pro-migration motion passed at conference.
Alena Ivanova, from the Labour Campaign for free movement, said: “A Romanian care worker and a British bus driver have more in common with each other than they do with their boss.
“That is the basis of the trade union movement. Len MCluskey’s job is to fight for their full rights, for decent pay and the right not to be deported and harassed by the state because of their immigration status.”
One party source said: “Len has re-emerged as the flag bearer of the old Labour right. He’s part of a backward-looking, small-c conservative nostalgia-tripping wing of the labour movement that wants ‘trade union rights for British workers’.”
Mr Corbyn defended the need for immigration into the UK and said EU workers had made “a massive contribution to our society” and stressed that immigration was needed to stop NHS staff shortages.
He stressed the party’s manifesto decision on immigration would be made its “Clause V meeting” attended by members of Labour’s ruling National Executive Committee, the shadow cabinet and some MPs.
The Unite union is Labour’s biggest affiliate and has considerable influence over the manifesto as it is finalised over the next few days.
Mr McCluskey said Unite campaigned on a platform of remain and reform in the 2016 referendum.
He said: “The reform part was important. The idea that we were happy with Europe is a joke. We clearly weren’t.”