Big Politics

‘Everything we do as citizens is determined by politics; and therefore everything unions do is determined by politics’, Len McCluskey wrote in his first book, a tract on trade unionism published shortly after the 2019 UK general election. Some eighteen months later, in her victorious election manifesto to succeed him as general secretary of Unite the Union, Sharon Graham declared that ‘the politics has failed.’ Her campaign insisted on the failure of Unite’s political project within the Labour Party. Any judgement of McCluskey’s record would seem to rest on what one makes of that indictment. As if to prove this point, McCluskey’s memoir, Always Red, released last month to coincide with the end of his decade-long tenure at the helm of Britain’s most formidable trade union, is dominated by a 180-page narration of his involvement in Westminster politics since 2011. The account of Corbynism therein is one of the most politically astute to date – no surprise given the editorial involvement of Alex Nunns, one of Corbyn’s most impressive former staffers and a historian of the project’s early stages.

When McCluskey began work as a planman on Liverpool’s docks in 1968, post-war trade union power was at its height. ‘You join the union here, son’ was the greeting at the dockland gate. McCluskey’s arrival as a 19-year-old member of the Transport and General Workers Union (T&G) came the same year as the election of International Brigadier Jack Jones as its general secretary, and through the early 1970s the union ‘reached the apogee of its influence on British life’, according to Andrew Murray, McCluskey’s chief of staff and official chronicler of the union’s history. By 1969, the T&G had 1.5 million members. It added 250,000 more in the following three years and hit the 2 million landmark in 1977. At this summit it was, in Murray’s telling, ‘the most powerful democratic working-class organisation in Britain’s history.’ Virtually all of McCluskey’s formative experiences, fondly recounted in the book, were in this ‘heroic period; a time when class solidarity…was something we lived and breathed.’

If McCluskey’s time as a lay member of the T&G happily coincided with the tenure of Jones, his industrial hero, then his move into the bureaucracy came at a less fortuitous moment. He became a full-time official for the T&G’s white-collar section in 1979, the same year Thatcher entered Downing Street. Neoliberal ascendancy devastated the industrial worlds of Merseyside with disorienting speed, with T&G membership in the region plummeting from 108,000 to 57,000 in the space of three years. Towards the end of the 1970s, in the twilight of Jones’s period as general secretary, simply keeping factories and other workplaces open became the major preoccupation. In McCluskey’s previous book, he traces the left turn in British trade unionism back to these origins: in Thatcher’s dislodging of unions from their ‘economic role in British capitalism’, and in Blair’s refusal to attempt a restoration.

In the early 1980s, McCluskey was central to organising the nascent left faction (National Broad Left) in the T&G, serving a political-secretarial function to its executive during time off from his duties in union officialdom. He was then ‘stood down from all industrial work’ to assist Liverpool City Council, led by the Militant Tendency, in their battle with Thatcher and Kinnock. This section of Always Red hints at McCluskey’s ecumenical formation. Tony Benn was his political hero, but much was learnt from Communist Party cadres in the T&G’s rank and file – although McCluskey never joined the CP given his discomfort with the Soviet regime. He had even less time for Britain’s Trotskyist outfits, describing them as ultra-leftists who put their ‘own short-term gains before the long-term interests of the working class.’ Militant, however, were the exception that proved the rule: ‘Here were people who lived in my community, worked in real jobs, and spoked a language that dealt with issues that mattered in a realistic and understandable way.’

McCluskey’s involvement in political organising, both inside the T&G and well beyond it, deepened as the industrial horizons of the previous decade rapidly receded. His national ascendancy originated in revulsion at the ‘accommodationist’ ethos of the early New Labour years. T&G general secretary Bill Morris had caught the Blairite bug, selling out the Liverpool dockers and antagonising the Broad Left. Yet the new millennium saw a historic left resurgence in the unions, with McCluskey at the forefront in the T&G: leading the radical opposition to Morris, managing the victorious campaign of Tony Woodley for general secretary in 2003, and subsequently becoming his assistant general secretary for strategy.

In Always Red, two noteworthy things about Woodley stand out: his deft navigation of the T&G’s merger with Amicus to form Unite in 2007, and his establishment of an organising department at McCluskey’s urging. McCluskey got the idea for the latter initiative, he says, from Andy Stern, former President of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and arch-enemy of Jane McAlevey, deep organising’s high priest. McAlevey’s first book, Raising Expectations, is in large part ‘the case against Stern’, whom she describes as the leader of a ‘shallow mobilizing’ programme – aiming to grow union membership for the purposes of advocacy, absent any commitment to actually organising workplaces and readying them for strikes. McCluskey came across Stern in the early 1990s, long before the clashes McAlevey describes. But his commitment to Stern’s ‘ethos’ of organising, restated in the book, is intriguing – insofar as it indicates significant detachment from the McAlevey-esque methods to which Sharon Graham and many of Unite’s organisers are committed.

Among the great strengths of the T&G left tradition, as Andrew Murray points out, was its commitment to doing big politics. For McCluskey, the silver lining of a bipartisan neoliberal settlement which weakened unions in the industrial sphere was the freedom ‘to work in different ways’ politically, beyond the constraints of corporatism and the Labourist bureaucracy. In the days of Jack Jones and Frank Cousins, the political stature of the general secretary flowed from industrial strength. For McCluskey, it was something like the opposite: reviving the conditions of possibility for industrial might was the work of politics. A clear and concerted political strategy was adopted by Unite’s executive committee shortly after McCluskey’s election as general secretary in 2011. It aimed to win Labour for working people, win working people for Labour, and build a ‘broad alliance to defeat the Tories and their policies’, laying the foundations of ‘a socialism for the 21st century’.

Did ‘the politics’ fail? At the launch of Always Red in the upstairs of a Westminster pub last month, packed with Labour left luminaries and a handful of lobby journalists, the speeches of Corbyn and McCluskey both homed in on the most convincing case for the triumph of Unite’s political project: the 2017 general election. So too in the book, McCluskey extols Labour’s performance in 2017 as an object-lesson that ‘radical politics can succeed.’ Against the tide, he writes, ‘despite all the efforts of snide, treacherous snakes saying Labour would be obliterated, the country embraced the unashamedly radical prospectus put forward by Jeremy Corbyn’. There is little to dissent from here, and no doubt that Unite was indispensable in facilitating this remarkable – and likely singular – achievement. McCluskey reminds us that as cowards flinched (Owen Jones visited him just after the 2017 election had been called, insisting that ‘it wasn’t too late to change leader’), Unite remained steadfast in its support for Corbyn.

Had McCluskey not unexpectedly backed Ed Miliband’s introduction of one-member, one-vote for Labour leadership elections, Corbynism would never have come to pass. And had Unite not stuck by the project, it may have lasted no longer than a year. In that sense, judgement of McCluskey’s political strategy’s success and the Corbyn project’s value is one and the same. If the latter is correctly understood, despite its obvious failings, as a historic advance for the British left, then the former cannot be dismissed. Straightforwardly, McCluskey was committed first to pushing Labour to the left (2011-2015), and then to the success of a socialist electoral project – sustaining it financially and defending it against an unprecedented onslaught from the state and media (2015-2019). At neither stage was the political prize separable from urgent industrial priorities: namely, opposing austerity and working for the election of a government among whose earliest acts would have been the repeal of Europe’s most restrictive anti-trade union laws.

What of his shortcomings and misjudgements? It is clear from Always Red that, by and large, they were not due to an excess of the political at the expense of the industrial, but rather to deficiencies (or lapses) of socialist politics. This is most stark when it comes to climate breakdown. In its active support for a ‘just transition’, Unite’s public positioning on climate has in recent years been far superior to that of fellow energy unions. McCluskey himself helped persuade Unite’s delegation to Labour’s 2019 conference to support the Green New Deal motion with a 2030 net-zero target, and a ‘workers’ greenprint for a million jobs’ was central to the continuity campaign of general secretary candidate Steve Turner this summer. Yet beneath the surface there is an affinity between McCluskey’s stance on climate and that of the relatively right-wing GMB. In the book, McCluskey emphasises his support for a state-directed just transition, but explains that in its absence, he must defend the ‘good, skilled jobs’ Unite members have in the fossil fuel and aviation industries.

This is an increasingly untenable position. Not only is advocacy for the expansion of such carbon-heavy work a sectional interest antithetical to the general interest, it also expresses a profoundly conservative trade unionism, embodying  the institutionalisation of defeat (as Richard Seymour has argued). Indeed, Unite’s single most successful act of parliamentary lobbying in McCluskey’s time as general secretary was, in a joint effort with GMB, whipping 119 Labour MPs to vote in favour of a third runway at Heathrow in 2018. As the new GMB general secretary Gary Smith explained, ‘It’s jobs and work for us, we’re in the jobs and work business.’

Surveying McCluskey’s record during the Corbyn years more generally, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that he often had a fiercer bark than bite, his rhetoric more combative than his political judgements. The mismatch is evident in Always Red. McCluskey gratifyingly denounces the PLP as ‘despicable, spineless people’ and excoriates the People’s Vote lobby, describing the likes of Paul Mason as ‘super-spreaders’ carrying the disease of ‘Remainitis’. On this level, the general secretary appears as the anti-McDonnell: uncompromising, unbowed, not giving an inch to the enemy. But the divergence between McCluskey and McDonnell over Brexit was down to honest tactical disagreements, about both the electoral calculus of Remain vs. Leave and the importance of Labour’s position reflecting that of its activist base. Beyond the European question, McCluskey was often guilty of the ‘knee-jerk conformism’ with which McDonnell has been charged.

During the 2017 election campaign McCluskey warned against Corbyn’s masterstroke speech in the wake of the Manchester terror attack, deeming it ‘too risky’. When it was forecast that Labour would be hammered in that election, Unite considered Emily Thornberry as a potential successor. The following year, McCluskey counselled Corbyn to adopt the full and unamended IHRA definition of antisemitism. He maintains that the leadership should have done so immediately – failing to see the dissonance with his diagnosis of the core of the ‘Labour antisemitism crisis’ as the refusal of Corbyn’s detractors to ‘take yes for an answer’. In the round, McCluskey clearly recognises that such concessions gave the media license for further attacks; yet he puzzlingly seems to think that giving ground more quickly here could have helped clear the path to 10 Downing Street. Not to mention that the opening salvo of McCluskey’s counsel to Corbyn, just before his election as leader, was: ‘You can’t pick John as your shadow chancellor… we think John is too divisive and you’re going to have to think of someone else, maybe Angela Eagle.’ In this light, McCluskey might counterintuitively be seen as a precocious practitioner of ‘McDonnellism’. Such strategic parallels highlight the perils of political retrospectives grounded in narratives of individual betrayal and villainy.

Speaking at a Labour Representation Committee (LRC) meeting at the TUC Congress fringe in 2012, McCluskey sized up the political challenge facing Unite:

Yes, we can move Labour left, we have to move Labour left, but let’s be honest about the task that lies ahead of us. Because the truth of the matter is, there are thousands, tens of thousands, of our activists throughout the trade union movement who tell us that the Labour Party’s dead…When I was running for general secretary in Unite…there wasn’t a single meeting [where members] didn’t ask the question, why are we still paying this Labour Party so much money?

He continued to point out that, in an all-member vote in which the leadership took a neutral stance, Unite would likely opt to disaffiliate from Labour. Nine years later, these remarks convey both the success of McCluskey’s political strategy and the extent to which it was built on quicksand. As the triumph of Sharon Graham’s campaign demonstrated, Unite failed to galvanize enough union members behind its political operation in Labour, or to persuade them of its importance. To that extent, Westminster (and Unite’s ossified bureaucratic club) can be credibly accused of leaving the workplace behind.

Yet McCluskey’s judgement about the centrality of big politics still stands. No amount of workplace or community organising, irrespective of its depth or skill, can circumvent the state. Unite’s new leadership could easily become captive to the anti-politics that (exaggerated for electoral expedience) secured its ascendance, particularly given the fragmentation and decline of United Left – the once dominant faction that has long controlled the union’s executive and secured McCluskey’s election. In Always Red, he writes that at the union’s 2012 and 2014 policy conferences, Unite came ‘closer than most people realised’ to disaffiliating from Labour, and even discussed the idea of a ‘new Workers’ Party.’ Given Labour is now firmly in the hands of forces far to the right of those that drove Ed Miliband’s leadership, it doesn’t seem implausible that such a prospect could surface again. In the best-case scenario, measured by the dictates of the climate timeline, Graham’s agenda would feed into a renewal and radicalisation of Unite’s political strategy without its downscaling, leaving the union and the Labour left in a durably stronger position: deep organising plus big politics. As for McCluskey’s legacy, it remains too early to tell. For now, in the British left’s field of failing again and failing better, it can be said that his political failure was about as triumphant as they come.

Read on: Arthur Scargill, ‘The New Unionism’, NLR I/92.