Following the recent announcement by Unite the Union to call an early election for its next General Secretary, Suki Sangha and Bryan Simpson caught up with the incumbent, Len McCluskey, at his campaign launch in Glasgow to talk about the Labour party, the possibility of a General Strike and community membership.
Bryan Simpson (BS): The International Socialist Group here in Scotland has just supported your nomination for Unite General Secretary at their recent National Conference and has committed its Unite activists to build for your campaign. One of the main bones of contention was the union’s link with the Labour party and what our members see to be the unconditional support given to a party which is effectively working against members interests.
If you are re-elected as General Secretary what will you do to make sure that more pressure is put on the Labour party to oppose the cuts and to remove the anti-trade union laws?
Len McCluskey (LM): Our support for the Labour party is certainly not unconditional. The only money we pay to Labour is our affiliation fee and when you’re a member of any organisation you have to pay a membership fee. So the reality is that we pay our membership fee and nothing else. I’ve made it clear to Ed Miliband that any additional payments made to the Labour party will only be made if they start to demonstrate that they’ve changed their ways and that they are beginning to recognise the concerns of ordinary working people and in particular the concerns of trade unions and organised labour. We must influence them to construct a radical alternative for the next election because if they don’t, they are not going to be elected – it’s as simple as that.
You also heard me say there that we have a political strategy to try and re-claim the party. Lots of people feel that it’s going to be a waste of time; lots of people feel that the Labour party is as dead as Monty Python’s parrot but there is a view supported by the Executive Council of Unite that we can still re-gain the heart and soul of the party and we’re going to try. As you’ve also heard me say, Bryan, I’m not going to try and kid anybody. If we are not making the progress that we need to make then I’ll come back and tell the Executive, and that means all of us will be engaged in a debate and a discussion on what our alternatives are.
BS: That was going to be my second question. What if you fail? Many people on the left believe that the Labour party is so inextricably linked to neo-liberalism that it is incapable of changing, certainly as fundamentally as we would like it to change. Would you consider the establishment of a new anti-cuts party?
LM: I would consider a new worker party if it gives a voice to organised labour, a voice that the Labour party was supposed to give. The Labour party has no God-given right to exist. It can only exist if it is the voice of organised labour. If it ceases to be the voice of organised labour then we will need to do what our forefathers and mothers did at the beginning of the last century; sit down and work out other options. That will have to involve other trade unions because the frustration that is felt within Unite is also felt in Unison, the GMB and in that sense the debate and discussion will have to take place with those unions as well.
Suki Sangha (SS): My question is on the new community initiative. What are your primary aims for Community organising and how do you think that they fit in with Unite’s overall strategy?
LM: The aim is simply to give people the opportunity to organise themselves, to have a voice. There are that many people in our communities now who don’t work or can’t work who are disenfranchised, have problems and issues with nowhere to turn. As more and more community organisations are being closed down as a result of the cuts, that situation is going to become even worse. What we’re saying is that we want to give people a hope, to empower them to organise and link-up with workers. It’s about unity. It’s about class unity.
How do I see them linking in? Well, if you are a member of Unite community you can be elected onto your local area activist committee with working people and you can play a role within your union. That role will grow as community membership grows. We now have seats on our Executive for Women, for disabled workers, for LGBT workers, Bryan sits there as Observer for young workers. They haven’t always been there. They are there because there is a mounting pressure at the rank and file level of the union to say we want that, we want our voice heard. I hope that’s what will develop with the growth of Community membership.
BS: My next question is with regards to Motion 5. As you know it received overwhelming support at the last TUC conference with a vote of 4-1 in favour of mandating the TUC looking at the logistical possibility of a general strike. As we know many of the unions that sit on the General Council, if not most of them, have no intention of balloting their members.
What are you going to do at the next General Council, with other leaders like Mark Serwotka to make sure that the TUC does follow through with what it has been mandated to do? Are you going to push the TUC to name a date?
LM: Naming a date is a great slogan being sung by left parties at the moment but it’s no use naming a date unless you have the confidence and you’re ready for the date. One thing we’re not going to do is allow those unions who have no intention of even balloting their members to drag us down and hold us back. We’re going to continue to take the resolution seriously but it’s not always as straight forward as you might think. For example, Mark Serwotka is a very good friend of mine and we’ve spoken about this at length. He is concerned about the concept of a general strike because he thinks that it will take away energy from what he sees to be a much more realistic possibility, which is another spate of coordinated strike actions in the public sector over pay. He believes that the demand and energy on a general strike will dissipate and not achieve any outcome.
BS: Do you agree with that?
LM: I understand his concerns but my point to him was that they are not mutually exclusive. We should be developing both. I will be meeting with the Unite public sector combine this week in order to get their thoughts and views about coordinated strike action over pay, jobs and conditions. PCS are already balloting, or have committed themselves to a ballot, and I hope that is precisely what our members vote to do on Monday. Separate to that, I still think you can keep the pot boiling over the concept of a general strike. We have started to utilise the terminology ‘mass strike action’ rather than general strike because, as I indicated in my meeting, certain groups of our members are more advanced in terms of militancy than other groups. We want to continue to build and fight the campaign right up to the election. There is no point waiting until the election. We haven’t got two years. People are suffering now and from April that suffering is only going to get worse and worse and worse. We want to be involved in everything; direct action, civil disobedience, industrial action where we can raise the members consciousness sufficiently and if we can do that with other unions then all the better.
Can I Just make this final point, you sat at our last Executive when we had a really intense and detailed debate about the general strike. I thought it was a fabulous discussion. You heard some Executive members saying that they didn’t think they could get their members out. I just wonder how many unions, including those which voted for Motion 5, are even having that debate.
BS: That’s exactly what I’ve said in my article. We have got the most progressive, left-wing Executive in the country. I’ve not sat on any other execs and I know that because of what’s actually being pushed through in terms of radical reforms and policies. That Executive is an Executive which would pull any General Secretary to the left. It is already 75% united left, which is a great thing but it can be 80%, 90%. That’s why we need the continuity of progressive leadership.
SS: Many members of the public may feel that resistance to Con-Dem austerity has fallen flat. Do you feel that Unite or the labour movement more generally has more to offer in a popular struggle against cuts?
LM: Of course they have. We have to constantly keep things on the boil. That’s why the vote by the TUC to consider taking general strike action was grist to the mill. It allows the media, even if they are attacking us, to keep it bubbling along. That’s why we are calling on our members to actively engage in the anti-cuts committees which exist in the towns and cities right across our nation. Of course we’ve got more to offer. In fact we are the only people who can offer that lead. The Labour leadership is not offering a lead. We are the only ones who can take that lead and we’ve got to fulfill that historic role which has been given to us. So there are lots more to do.
BS: You’ve been a big supporter of the Coalition of Resistance since its inception. One of the strongest groups in the country is here in Glasgow. What we are looking to do is to bring together the Coalition of Resistance and the Community project. Would you be up for coming back up to Glasgow to help us launch that?
LM: Of course I would be up for that. By all means, feed the dates back to my office and if I’m free I would be delighted to do it.
Thanks, and I appreciate your support.