12:37, November 12 216 0 theguardian.com

2019-11-12 12:37:06
Labour candidate suing union says Labour has moved too far to left

Labour’s Anna Turley, who is suing the union Unite, has told the high court that the party has moved too far to the left under Jeremy Corbyn and has refused to apologise for insulting the union’s leader, Len McCluskey.

Turley, who became the Labour MP for Redcar, North Yorkshire in 2015 and hopes to regain the seat, is embroiled in a libel battle at the high court in London with the party’s biggest donor.

She claims an article on the Skwawkbox blog written by Stephen Walker, which contained a press statement from Unite, libelled her by conveying the meaning that she had acted dishonestly in submitting an application to join the union.

The article said Turley had broken the rules because she had joined Unite’s community section, which was supposed to be exclusively for unwaged members, and had made a false declaration to do so.

Questioned by Anthony Hudson, QC, for Unite and Walker, Turley said she believed the party had “moved too far to the left” under Corbyn. She criticised McCluskey for having “no accountability and too much influence”.

Hudson read messages to the court from a WhatsApp group known as The Birthday Club Group which included Turley and fellow Labour MPs Ruth Smeeth, Chris Leslie and Stella Creasy in which they discussed how to unseat McCluskey, the Unite general secretary.

In September 2016, Smeeth sent a link to an online article suggesting McCluskey could step down ahead of a snap election, accompanied by the message: ‘It’s game on in Unite!’

Addressing the exchange, Hudson accused Turley of wanting to remove both the Unite and Labour leaders, adding: “Your ultimate aim was to get rid of Mr McCluskey so that you could leave Corbyn vulnerable to another coup didn’t you?”

Turley replied: “It is not a secret that I didn’t want Corbyn to be a leader of the Labour party … but the idea that there was another big strategy to get rid of him, you know, we had a motion of no confidence and it didn’t work.”

Asked whether she would apologise for previously calling McCluskey an “arsehole” in a tweet in 2016, Turley refused and insisted to do so would be “disingenuous as it was part of my view”.

Returning to messages on the WhatsApp group, Hudson said Creasy, a Labour candidate for Walthamstow, messaged the group after being urged to join Unite saying: “Share the link I’m gonna enjoy the recruitment exercise payback.”

Chris Leslie, the then MP for Nottingham East, wrote: “Send a round a link to the community branch so we can all do this.” Creasy then posted a picture of a baby winking with the response: “Great minds, Chris, great minds.”

Turley told the court that she chose not to include her status as an MP when she filled in an application to join Unite Community in December 2016 because she feared McCluskey would block her entry to the union.

She said she had “unknowingly” breached membership rules by signing up for a 50p-per-week subscription to the community branch exclusively for the unemployed and retirees. “I did it in good faith because I thought anybody could join,” she said.

Turley said she did not want to become an official Unite MP because they were given instructions on how to vote.

“I’ve seen just recently in the elections for house Speaker, McCluskey sent round recommendations of who people should vote for and I feel like that’s an indication that, when you become a Unite MP, you have to promote Unite’s interests and ideals,” Turley told the court.

The hearing at the Royal Courts of Justice in central London, which began on Monday, is expected to last three days and will hear from witnesses such as Smeeth and testimony from high-ranking union officials.

It could prove embarrassing as the Labour movement attempts to put on a show of unity during the general election campaign.

According to documents submitted to the court by Turley’s counsel, an official from Unite told Turley in March 2017 she should move to become an industrial member because she was not eligible to be a community member. Turley replied to the official days later apologising and asked how she should transfer her membership.

None of this exchange appeared in Walker’s April 2017 article, Turley’s legal team claim. Instead, a Unite spokesperson was quoted as saying: “Anyone joining on a fraudulent basis will prompt an investigation. A complaint has been received and is being investigated.”

She is also suing Walker and accuses Unite of misusing her private information.

The hearing continues.