Defending moderate trade unionism
The interview the Guardian carried today with Unite general secretary Len McCluskey is worth a close read.
I declare a few interests that will be familiar to regular readers. I am a Unite member and have been since 1995. Until 2009 I was heavily involved in the political structures of the union, serving on its London Regional Political Committee and being supported by Amicus (Unite’s predecessor) as a parliamentary candidate, until I was purged, along with a whole set of other moderate activists, by the TGWU Broad Left when the unions merged. I voted for Len, as did most other moderates in the union, ‘with no illusions’ as the SWP would say! I am deeply committed to maintaining the union link with Labour and think the political and cultural drifting apart of the party and the unions is a major existential threat to Labour’s future.
The most obvious point of criticism is already all over the media.
Len’s suggestion that ‘The unions, and the general community, have got every right to be out protesting. If the Olympics provide us with an opportunity, then that’s exactly one that we should be looking at’ is an own-goal of catastrophic proportions. Len seems to have forgotten that to be strong, the trade union movement needs to be popular.
Making the public hate you by disrupting a sporting event many ordinary working people, including Unite members and potential members, have been looking forward to for years is not the way to win the debate on cuts. Has the union movement learned nothing from the way Thatcher exploited the iconic images of the ‘Winter of Discontent’? He’s just given the Tories a massive stick to beat us with. It’s also flawed logic. Why would you protest against cuts by disrupting one of the few examples of continued government spending, which is helping to create jobs for Unite members in one of the most deprived boroughs in London?
On the union link with the party, Len says ‘Within Unite we have been planning our political strategy, which is to have a common narrative with other unions and other like-minded people to reclaim the Labour party for our values, the values of decency, fairness, justice and equality.’ The insinuation that people he disagrees with in the Labour party do not believe in the ‘values of decency, fairness, justice and equality’ or that the party has ever stopped promoting these values is disgusting, divisive and uncomradely.
A starting point for any comradely debate about Labour’s policies is a mutual recognition that everyone in the party shares the same fundamental values, whatever our differences on the policies or tactics needed to advance those. Demonisation and delegitimisation of your colleagues in the same political party as you is shocking coming from the general secretary of our largest affiliate.
On the plus side, Len was correct to pick up on David Miliband’s strange remark that the professions were under-represented in the PLP, and to instead point out that ‘quite disgracefully, 4 per cent of the parliamentary Labour party are from manual labour backgrounds. What we intend to do is get our members better represented by people who understand the problems that they face’ so that Labour is ‘the party of working people’. I think Len possibly makes the mistake though of thinking that ‘more working class’ means ‘more leftwing’. Anyone who canvasses council estates will know this is not true.
Len’s next statement is outrageous: ‘We’ve been far too lax in allowing individuals to become Unite candidates who have got no connection whatsoever with trade union values. Remember, Tony Blair was a member of my union. So was Gordon Brown.’ The only thread he can find to hang the insult that two Labour PMs had ‘no connection whatsoever with trade union values’ is that the UK still has bad labour laws. It is a fair criticism to say that Labour didn’t do everything the unions wanted on labour legislation, but an unbalanced one to say this indicates no connection with union values given Blair and Brown’s other policies such as restoring union rights at GCHQ, bringing in the minimum wage, improving health and safety legislation, and investing massively in the public sector, creating huge numbers of jobs at steadily increasing wages for Unite members. I can understand Len doesn’t like Blair, but what on earth did Brown ever do to offend him?
He goes on to deliver an implicit threat to the Unite group of MPs:
‘We have got something like 102 Labour MPs who are Unite members.
Whether all those 102 actually believe in Unite’s philosophy and policies I very much doubt.’ This portrays a shockingly narrow-tent vision of what it is to be a good trade unionist and a loyal Unite member. Apparently you have to sign up to all the current nutty policies to emerge from the Unite policy conference, which currently include the insane demand that there should be ‘no cuts’ at all, support for the Stalinist dictatorship in Cuba, and the pernicious campaign for Israel to be the subject of a boycott movement. Len’s politics and philosophy do not represent the only legitimate strand of opinion in Unite. The politics and philosophy of former AEEU general secretary Sir Ken Jackson or of former MSF general secretary Roger Lyons are just as legitimate traditions in Unite for its 102 MPs to support. The Unite group of MPs needs to grow some balls and collectively and publicly tell Len they expect him to behave in a way that is consistent with Labour’s philosophy and policies and promotes our chances of winning a general election.
Having said that, his broad statement of support for the link is welcome, and his warmer language about Ed Miliband represents a significant softening from the rhetoric he was dishing out in the aftermath of Ed Balls’ economic policy speech to the Fabians, though he still goes on to make the electorally suicidal suggestion that they ‘should worry less … about this fiscal credibility that they are desperate to pin all over them.’
I welcome Len’s call for Unite members to get more active in CLPs to make the link a closer, more organic one at a grassroots level. I’m delighted, for instance, that Unite’s London region is mobilising activists to take part in a canvassing day of action I am running in Hackney this Saturday for the London mayoral election.
But I hope Len doesn’t just mean more leftwingers from Unite should get involved in Labour. I hope he means that all union members, including moderates, will be encouraged to do this, not just stooges of the current Unite leadership.
And this organic growing of the link has a necessary corollary. As I have written before it is incumbent on all Labour moderates to join the appropriate trade union and actively fight within its structures for moderate policies. If you are not already in a union, please join Unite and help fight to restore it to mainstream stances. A good starting point will be to vote against any proposal to merge with PCS, let by anti-Labour ultra-leftist Mark Serwotka, so that Serwotka cannot stand to be McCluskey’s successor as Unite general secretary.
Len, we on the moderate wing of Unite and Labour are proud trade unionists too. You do not represent the totality of viewpoints among your membership. And in the years to come we will demonstrate that.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.
David Miliband, Ed Miliband, Gordon Brown, Guardian, Labour, Olympics, Parliament, Tony Blair, Trade unions, Unite the union, winter of discontent