Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

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.


Luke Akehurst is a constituency representative on Labour’s NEC, a councillor in Hackney, writes regularly for Progress here, and blogs here


Photo: tomylees

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Luke Akehurst

is director of We Believe in Israel and a former member of Labour's National Executive Committee


  • Popular with Unite members ? Popular with the redtops and the Daily Heil ? Popular with the general republic ?

    It does amuse me that the centre right of the party use ‘what’s popular with the general populace’ as a figleaf when it suits their purposes, and then ignore it when it doesn’t.

  • I don’t get how your views are the views of the majority? how do you know? Len seemed to get elected legally, didn’t he? Maybe he’s what the members want…

    The party is the unions’ mouthpiece in parliament, that is what it was set up for, not for MPs to tell unions what to do, you’ve got it all arse about face, learn your history!

  • Luke what a load of rubbish, trade unions are entitled to have their views, the Labour party needs to remember and respect its roots, not dance to the tune of a right wing dominated media, that will always misinterpret key messages from the labour movement.

  • I think Luke makes very clear that Mc Lusky was not dependent solely on far left votes to become leader, saying expressly that:

    “I voted for Len, as did most other moderates in the union”.

  • Luke’s opinion (I think) is that taking any form of action during the Olympics will be

    a) bad for trade unionism in terms of popularity
    b) bad for Labour Party popularity given the links between TUs and the party

    and therefore should be opposed. Any form of strike action by public sector workers, or those in transport services is going to have an effect on the general public – that’s kind of the point, really. How else to pursue your aims? Sadly, the results of (occasional) strike action leads me (and most moderate-left trade unionists) to believe that, used sparingly and effectively, it does tend to concentrate managers’ minds on the task in hand. The Olympics are likely to be a busy and stressful time for all transport workers, and an honorarium is probably the most effective way of delivering that. The organisers and the present administration probably feel we should bear the extra burden and effort in regard to national prestige and pride. It also means it will be a lot cheaper for them. And frankly, in the face of the most vicious cuts in public expenditure in living memory, and steadily lowering standards of living, goodwill is at a premium, and certainly not worth wasting on illusorry electoral popularity that would be generated if the Labour Party wholeheartedly condemned this action.

  • McCluskey was all over the place in this interview, in which as Luke suggests he made some good points, but they were wasted by spurious comments about the Olympics, Blair and Brown and Unite’s MPs. He needs to engage his brain before talking to the media because he damages the many just causes he is supporting.

  • I agree with what you write about the unhelpful and downright unpopular comments this man gave in his interview with the Guardian. He is a disgrace not only with the comment you cover which sounds very bullying but with many other areas he touched upon..

    What a disaster for the Trade Union movement for this statement to come out. We are showcasing our country to the world and the spin off in terms of tourism are immense. Tourism is a wealth creator and we have thousands of people employed in the industry. So much for speaking for the country, he is speaking for the minority of citiziens whom he represents. Len McCluskey also ignores as you say the development of the most deprived part of the Capital and the jobs created by the Olympic Games. So much for standing up for British interests or British jobs. How out of touch is he also when we are a sport loving nation.

    I wish trade unions realised that their membership is in decline and they do not speak for the public. If they seek to gain the public’s support in respect of their representation of their members, then it is important that they do not seek to undermine the government of the day or portray their own political leanings. Further, MrMcCluskey’s statement regarding Ed Miliband and Ed Balls throwing out austerity, is alarming and out of touch with the public’s views of the national debt. Is he anti democracy or is he just an old man out of date with society?

  • For me the 1985 speech to conference about militant can be said about unite in my books, Len and co are so stuck up in the past it’s painful. Simple fact is The unions are unpopular with people and numbers are declining It has nothing to do with ‘right wing’ newspaper media it is to do with the fact they don’t represent the views of ‘the working people’ whoever they are anyway.

  • With the greatest respect, Holby 18, Trade Unions do not – and never have – existed to speak for the public, they exist to extend and defend their members rights – there is a huge difference. That’s industrial democracy for you.

    If we did solely what was popular with the public all the time, things would be very different. I also personally think the profits generated by tourism are hugely overstated in comparison to the costs of staging them, together with the legacy – we can’t even let the main stadium presently. If Union members rights are threatened, of course they should seek to undermine the government of the day, why else would they exist ?

    I would take issue with ‘the public’s view of the national debt’ (I’m presuming you think it’s New Labour’s fault) – I think most people think it’s a variety of factors, not just the previous administration, and certainly to be laid at the door of a variety of reckless financial institutions as well.

  • If you want to believe this it’s your right of course. The vast majority of unions and union members are not stuck in the 1970s. I take it you’ve probably never been a member.

  • Sensible piece. Mr McCluskey’s remarks pander to hard-core supporters and are not going to win back voters who abandoned Labour at the last election. If he really wants the party to win, he has to engage positively with people who do not share his narrow world-view. He is so reminiscent of Republican fundamentalists in the US who see betrayal and sell-out from anyone who deviates from their narrow perspective of what’s acceptable.

    That means listening to where people are rather than telling them where they should be and persuading them – not hectoring or bullying.

  • I’m not sure what Roger Lyons represents except an ability to claim for buns on the memberships’ money.

  • Moderation isn’t necessarily a good thing. I’d take a moderate Tory government over a hardline one of course, but in our case the further left the party and the unions go, the better. Moderation has brought ruin to Labour.

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