Last night Len McCluskey, general secretary of the UK’s largest trade union, Unite, kicked off the 2013 Ralph Miliband Memorial lecture series at the LSE. The event was laced with irony: Ralph, the Marxist sociologist who died in 1994, was of course the father of David and Ed Miliband. Since becoming general secretary in 2011, McCluskey, whose union is Labour’s biggest donor, has often been a thorn in the side of the Labour leader, precisely because he reflects the deeper, redder socialism of Ed’s father. None of this was lost to ‘Red Len’, who wryly observed: “the father spent his life trying to convince our movement that there was no possibility of a parliamentary road to socialism, while his sons have been loyally putting theory into practice, and proving Ralph right.”
Speaking in a soft Liverpudlian accent, McCluskey advanced a fiery but highly literate argument on the need to re-forge working class politics in the 21st century. The McCluskey thesis is that during the 20th century, the working class – spearheaded by the labour movement – won spectacular victories which we take for granted today. As he put it: “The idea that capitalism or the ruling elite would have introduced democracy or social equality or welfare [social security and universal public services] on their own is entirely fanciful.”
His argument is that the welfare state is under threat today because its protectors – the trade union movement and a politically-active working class – have been weakened and demoralised by a neo-liberal offensive which began in the late 1970s but which continues to this day. What’s more, he argues that contemporary discussion of the working class by politicians and the press, who either deny it any longer exists (“we’re all middle class now”, as John Prescott famously asserted) or demonize it as “feckless, criminalized, and ignorant,” is part of a deliberate strategy by elites to crowd the working class out of politics.
McCluskey is not the naïve nostalgic of rightwing myth, obsessed by an unattainable dream of reliving the golden days of his youth, when he organized clerical workers in the Liverpool docklands. He is enough of a realist to know that the deindustrialization of the British economy since the 1980s has changed the face of the working class forever. But he is adamant that it is still out there, and his mission is to try to re-forge a viable working class politics by reaching out beyond the unions’ traditional constituency to “the unemployed, the disabled, carers, the elderly, [and] the voluntary and charity sector.” He has some interesting ideas about how to reconnect unions with the wider community: Unite is training activists to work as community organizers, and also has plans to create a new credit union to provide an alternative to usurious payday loan companies.
Nevertheless, working class “consciousness raising” – persuading people they represent a class with common interests, and that the labour movement has the answers to their problems – is as old as socialism itself, and has an extremely mixed record of success. Whether McCluskey is the right man to rebuild a working class mass movement is also questionable. In the past he has demonstrated a remarkable tin ear when it comes to public sentiment – most notably in February last year when he disastrously threatened to disrupt the Olympics to protest against austerity.
Perhaps the most significant thing to come out of the speech however, and certainly the most troubling for Ed Miliband, is evidence that the old divisions within Labour are still disconcertingly alive and kicking. While Miliband has tried to bury the traditional tension between ‘Old’ and ‘New’ Labour with the reassuringly consensual ‘One Nation’ slogan, questions from the floor (which were almost exclusively from Unite members) railed against “the rightwing parliamentary labour party” and Progress, the Blairite pressure group which some union leaders (though not McCluskey) want banned from the party.
What’s more, McCluskey seems to be on a collision course with the Labour leadership. When asked what his three “must-dos” for a Labour government in 2015 would be, “trade union freedoms, trade union freedoms, trade union freedoms”, was his defiant answer. He also repeated his view that a “watered down version of austerity” was not an option. But Ed Miliband is very unlikely to relax trade union regulation (imagine the headlines: “Union paymasters get their pound of flesh”), and the fiscal environment in 2015 will almost certainly preclude him from doing anything other than continuing with deep public spending cuts. In other words, the “red line areas” set out by Labour’s biggest financial donor are things which the party’s leadership are not in a position to deliver. As Fred Astaire crooned, “there may be trouble ahead…”
A version of this post appeared on the Prospect magazine blog on 17/01/2013