by Dean Quick
Len McCluskey is being championed as the “left” candidate in the Unite general secretary election. Assuming that the label means something we have to think it means he’s the candidate that stands for greater equality, for challenging the unfairly powerful and undeservingly privileged and the person most committed to giving us a powerful trade union able to meet and match the worst a Tory government can throw at us.
But the truth is that McCluskey is none of these things. He’s the candidate of the status quo, of continued decline, of no change, of jobs for the boys and he’s armed with a backward looking programme because, in essence, he’s a candidate of the past and certainly not of the future.
McCluskey – unlike some of his chief lieutenants – has never been in the Communist Party or even aligned with one of its satellites, like the Straight Left faction that Jeremy Corbyn’s paladin Seumas Milne supported. But his approach to his job is fundamentally that of the “militant labourists” that formed the traditionalist internal opposition to the CP’s “Eurocommunist” leadership in the 1970s and 1980s.
That factional battle was at its height this time thirty years ago. But it would be a mistake to think that the issues involved collapsed with the Berlin Wall. For while the Communist Party was at heart a pathological organisation – how else can you think of a movement so tied into a history of defending dictatorship and murder – its influence was profound.
The “Euros” were influenced by the new left movement (itself born out of an earlier Communist fragmentation) of the 1960s and engaged with ideas like feminism and what they called “new social movements”. Above all it sought to build a broad coalition for social change through a cultural politics that encompassed much more than the traditional movement settings of the workplace meeting and the party committee.
The influence of these ideas on New Labour was profound, even if many on both sides might wish to deny that. If New Labour was about social democrats coming to terms with the market, an understanding of the appeal of a culture where money made you equal and no state inspector held the power of judgement was at the core. More than that even, Tony Blair’s interview with Eric Hobsbawm in the Euro’s “Marxism Today” was an important moment of breakthrough for the newly promoted Shadow Cabinet member.
The “labourists” – think of Arthur Scargill – had different visions and motivations. Of course tokenistic support – then and now – was, generally at least, offered to feminists, greens and gays, to the extent that they challenged capitalist power. Though any real questioning of internal movement practise was often greeted with hostility.
For the labourists the battle that mattered was that of the working men (and they were all men) in the union with the government. For a moment – between the defeat of Barabar Castle’s “In Place of Strife” in 1968, and the defeat of Jim Callaghan in 1979’s winter of discontent – this politics seemed to work. After all, it was the Communists’ industrial department – under the legendary leadership of Bert Ramelson, who used to boast of how he had slaughtered Trotskyists in the Spanish civil war – that had all but brought Edward Heath’s government to its knees in the first miners’ dispute of 1971.
It was also a dead end. Militant demands for higher pay are hardly a sign of a desire for socialist transformation. At the time the strongest advocates of higher pay were generally those most opposed to any efforts to introduce a minimum wage or focus wage rises on the lowest paid. Demands for equal pay for women were quite likely to be seen as a distraction from the battle for higher wages.
The labourists opposed any efforts by government to intervene in pay. The Tories in 1979 echoed, essentially word for word, the Communist call for “free collective bargaining” as a rejection of Labour’s attempts to plan prices and incomes. For once the Communists had a popular policy but it was Margaret Thatcher who profited.
No lessons were learned, for if one thing marks out militant labourism, it is a rejection of the need to change. Modernisation, adaption, repurposing: these are the words and phrases of the class collaborators and traitors while true fighters emphasise their continuity with the past, not their willingness to take instruction from it.
So it is with McCluskey. He is even now travelling up and down the country speaking to groups of (white) men, all the while sat behind a table or on a dais – change the cut of his suit and he could be Ernie Bevin eighty years ago.
McCluskey is so conservative, so determined to resist change, that he has not even bothered to issue a manifesto for the current election: he is quite deliberately running as the continuity candidate, but it’s continuity with policies and strategies that even an aggressive approach to mergers cannot conceal has led to a decline in membership: by well over 100,000 since McCluskey first assumed office in 2011.
His online supporters are so hostile to feminists and anti-racist campaigns that they accuse the former of being “anti-men” when they highlight concerns about the union’s internal culture, while pointing out the all-white nature of his meetings results in accusations of “racism” for even bringing the matter up.
Holding office in Unite is seen as an aim in itself and one that can bring rich rewards: most obviously seen in the union’s subsidy for McCluskey’s own central London home. Property speculation used to be anathema to the wider labour movement, but in Unite’s case its rewards are explicitly cited to justify spending £417,000 of members’ money to give the union’s best paid employee an even greater reward package.
On organising in new areas of the economy McCluskey seems to have nothing to say at all, beyond ritualistic denunciations of the gig economy, while his one major innovation – the creation of “Unite Community” to organise the unemployed is little more than a traditional Communist policy that has, in any case, collapsed into not much more than a pool of votes for McCluskey in the election.
In short: McCluskey’s claims to be a serious figure of the left are slim, to say the least. And to the extent that they are real it is of a backward looking and ultimately self-defeating left.
Dean Quick is a pseudonym