Len McCluskey: the Left needs you

There are two ways to look at Len McCluskey and his campaign for another five years as General Secretary of Unite. One is to look at his record within Unite and the TGWU before it, and at his future plans for the direction of Britain’s biggest union. What will he do for his members? And will he do what is needed to strengthen that union in the tough battles it faces? That’s how the voters, Unite members, will look at it.

But there’s another view, one that is arguably even more important, and will certainly be viewed as such by most of the readers of this website. What will he do for the Left? Is he the right person to help develop a political strategy to enable us to deal with the massive political challenge we face?

Last month Martin Mayer, Chair of United Left, outlined McCluskey’s achievements to date as general secretary and why he needed another term to “to complete the merger and make UNITE ‘fit for purpose’.” Jerry Hicks, his challenger has a different view on internal union democracy that will appeal to some with a background in the AEU rather than the TGWU, though it is not the general secretary who determines the structure for a union’s internal democracy.

Hicks also engages in that set of accusations familiar through the ages from those of his politics against all union leaders, sooner or later. Those charges range from complacency to downright treachery in the battle to engender more militancy from the members. Except that there are hardly any current union leaders who have done more in solidarity with others or to coordinate action with other unions than McCluskey, up to and including helping lead the call at last year’s TUC for exploring the potential for a general strike.

The reality is just that the members are not exactly straining at the bit for a general strike, and we have been warned about sleepwalking into one. Furthermore union membership stands at its lowest since the 1940s. There will be strikes against the onslaught that is taking place, and Unite’s general secretary must lead them, and provide the coordination to maximise their effect. But the real key to beating austerity, opposing job and public service cuts, restoring manufacturing, defending living standards, is the political strategy that goes alongside.

This is where Hicks offers nothing – a distancing from Labour at just the time the trade unions are in a position to help liberate it from the clutches of the Blairites. McCluskey, on the other hand, is trying to change Labour. As one of Hicks’s leading supporters on the union executive remarked:

Len is often highly critical of today’s Labour Party, and has done more than any previous General Secretary to try to shift it closer to UNITE’s agenda. He talks about wanting to “reclaim” Labour.”

And he has the right approach to achieving that – a return to class politics:

Let’s not pretend that we are “one nation”, or that we will become one without the conflict that Ralph Miliband placed at the heart of politics,”

as he said in his Ralph Miliband lecture, dismissing Tony Blair’s declaration that the class war is over, whilst adding:

No doubt from the boardroom of JP Morgan or wherever he is now, it may look that way.”

But he is also a union leader who wants to link the Labour movement and class politics with new forms of protest like UK Uncut with Vodaphone and Starbucks. “The truth is these tactics work,” he says.

To win the battles within the Labour Party, it has long been argued on the Labour Left, that we must carry mainstream opinion with us. As a leader of the Left, McCluskey has shown himself to be uniquely adept at that, and never better than in his measured but brutally firm response to Alan Johnson’s attack on union influence – “fat, white, finger-jabbing blokes on rostrums shouting and screaming.”

On New Labour:

It was the first Labour government with a huge parliamentary majority which did nothing to touch the fundamentals of wealth and power in our society.”

On New Labour’s economic policy: it

remained wedded to a neo-liberal economic strategy which has now crashed and burned. Ruthlessly prioritising the interests of the City over all other industries, and with a belief in free markets which even many Conservatives would regard as naïve, the last government got the biggest issue of all for most Labour voters very wrong.”

McCluskey has shown a determination to reshape Labour, to restore its commitment to working class politics, to fight austerity and inequality, to develop coherent alternative policies through the union-backed think-tank CLASS, and to select parliamentary candidates who will change the character and politics of the parliamentary party. No other left leader can hold together the alliance needed to do these things. It would be nothing less than a disaster, when there is so much still to be done, to lose him from this battle.

A version of this article was first published in the LRC Briefing.

  1. Never has so much been done for the benefit of trade union members and their workplace reps in the short time the big man has been in office .
    The trade union in Britain today need the Lens of this world to fight on the same battle ground as our members are in and I believe Len is the best warrior to lead and fight from the front shoulder to shoulder. There are many examples of this, Besna,Visteon,Linsley,London busses,Honda,NHS, etc etc. Len has been in all of these campaigns as well as European social and domestic struggles as are in Britain today. So many achievements while protecting the assets and union member’s purse.
    This is no time for change, continuity is a must.

  2. Paddy says that Len McCluskey was involved in the Visteon struggle. Not true. The Unite Officer, Brain Harris, advised the convenors not to occupy. The support for legal action against Ford on our pensions came only after Visteon workers lobbied the union policy conference and the Executive felt pressured to support. You yourself Paddy at the time of your suspension siad if you did not receive support from the union you would call upon the NSSN to leaflet the Honda factory. Hardly a ringing vote of confidence in the union leadership! Don’t think that selling yourself to McCluskeys campaign will win the workers of Honda any support in the future from the union bureaucracy when it comes to protecting their own interests.

  3. Des, I won’t be bought or sold by any organisation, regardless of who, or what they are. For your information the NSSN and all their affiliates, notwithstanding the FBU,NUT,NUJ,JAWA(Japan),CTUM (China) all rallied for my colleagues right to belong to a trade union, and, as you worked there you ought to know what a “fly in the ointment” the union and it’s members were for the company. I have stood along many trade unionist supporting them and defending the attacks from their employers, purely because they fought as trade unionist, in nearly every industry over the years. I have to be honest Des, I find your comments wholly unjustified against me and I’M disappointed, and because of what, I dared to back Len Mc Cluskey ? If you did your reseach I never went to any of the trade unions, head down, cap in hand.I stood and fought for what I believe in, our members expectyed and never accepted any compromises from anyone,or offers of jobs! Des, I’m true to my principles and never used the situation I found myself as a “cash cow” for my own ends, unlike some of our so called trade unionist friends.I have no tolerance for red tape bureaucracy but plenty of tolerence for democratic rights to democracy. Finally, I may or may not agree with all the policies of Unite but like everything else in life, too much of it destroys itself in the end. For as long as I’m elected I will stand by the principles of the trade union and defend workers rights. Any man or woman worth any salt should stand by their conviction whether that act isolates them or not.

  4. I have had the privilege over the past 17 years to see Paddy Brennan grow into a formidable force for the Union Unite & its members in Honda. We may not agree on some issues, but his integrity and commitment to the cause is second to none. In those long dark days of his struggle while suspended, never once did he waver, always resolute in the knowledge he did the ” Right thing ” a cornerstone of his beliefs. I for one would stand by his side in any dispute, with absolute trust in his integrity and resolution. The members at Honda are very fortunate to have his services at their disposal.