Following the recent decision by Unite the Union to call an early election for their General Secretary, Bryan Simpson argues why Socialists should offer their critical support to Len McCluskey.
In the aftermath of the occupation of Tory HQ at Millbank, those involved were branded “criminal thugs” and subjected to a witch hunt which led to dozens being sent to jail. Yet, while the liberal media, the NUS and most of the Labour party were falling over one another to condemn those involved, the Assistant General Secretary of Unite the Union publicly applauded them as an “inspiration”. Quite a courageous thing to do the week before a General Secretary election in which he was a candidate, particularly when the main threat was perceived to be from the right. Even before his successful election, Len McCluskey had appeared to align himself with the far left of the trade union movement.
In the two years since the protests in 2010, McCluskey has proven himself as the most progressive General Secretary in the country and one of the most left wing trade union leaders of the last decade. Under his leadership, Unite the union has become the most progressive union in Britain. It is one of only a handful of unions, and the only one affiliated to the Labour party, to oppose all cuts. As an ardent supporter of the Coalition of Resistance he stood squarely behind groups such as UK Uncut, calling for “mass direct action and civil disobedience” against the cuts.
With the establishment of the Unite Community campaign he has initiated a programme which seeks to bring together those most acutely affected by the cuts. This initiative not only has the potential to revolutionise the way trade unions interact with and are thus perceived by the working class but it could also tie together two of the most crucial battle grounds for class politics – the workplace and the streets. It is the initiative of someone who has a clear understanding not only of where we are in terms of the balance of class forces but where we must go in order to avoid destruction.
He has also been a thorn in the side of the right wing of the trade union movement, arguing persistently for coordinated strike action across the public and private sector. When public sector workers struck in November, Unite and PCS formed joint strike committees, following the agreement signed between Mark Serwotka and Len McCluskey in May 2011. Both general secretaries were undoubtedly instrumental in winning the argument over motion 5 at the 2012 TUC Conference; which committed the TUC to look at the practicalities of a General Strike. Needless to say, with the likes of USDAW and ATL among its members, the TUC General Council was prepared to do nothing to initiate the actions mandated by conference. In fact it took a rather heated intervention from McCluskey to demand that it be brought back on the table.
What is clear is that Len McCluskey is no bureaucrat. He is a grass roots general secretary. His ideological stance, not just in rhetoric but in tangible action, in support of mass direct action including industrial action is proof of this. It was not the officialdom which put him there. They wanted Baylis. It was the electoral machine of United Left which is made up of tens of thousands of rank and file shop stewards and activists. They now hold him to account via arguably the most left executive of any trade union.
Despite the incredibly negative campaign launched by the Baylis camp in 2010, McCluskey was quick to quell the idea that he would be a T&G only General Secretary and has been instrumental in uniting what was previously a divided union. Under his leadership, Unite the union has been transformed from a union dogged with internal battles during the Woodley-Simpson era to one which looks outward, taking a leading role in both the trade union and anti-cuts movements. The makeup of the NEC is testament to this transformation, with over 75% of the Executive now United Left. This is important not just for Unite but for the trade union movement as a whole because, as the biggest trade union in Britain, it can now lead the movement and continue to pull it to the left.
This is not to say that things are perfect. At the last Executive Council it was clear that there was significant disagreement both from the right and left, with 18 voting against an early election. This clearly shows that some divisions still exist, even within United Left. These divides can only be bridged with the continuity of a progressive leadership. The last thing it needs is for that progress to be cut short by a change in leadership which would almost certainly plunge it bank into the dark days of division which held Unite and the trade union movement back for so long.
Why now?: Democracy and Accountability
Critics of an early election have justifiably raised concerns over how it may be perceived by the members. Some EC members from both the right (workers united)and the left (supporters of Jerry Hicks) have argued that calling an early ballot will be seen by members (particularly ex-Amicus) as another attempt by a General Secretary to cling onto power.
The simple fact is that McCluskey is no Simpson. The aforementioned changes brought about under his leadership both in uniting the union and pulling it to the left clearly demonstrate that. Furthermore, as opposed to in 2010 when it was used to push Unite rightwards, calling an early election now in 2013 has the sole purpose of solidifying the dominance of the left within Unite.
When we choose who to support in an election like this, as socialists and trade unionists, we cannot and should not allow our decisions to be governed by party political allegiances alone. A political organisation which has a healthy internal culture will make allowances for the fact that members operating within a specific union understand the balance of forces therein and thus have a unique vantage point when it comes to decision making within their own area of operation. Although Unite members should be accountable to the wider organization, through regular consultation and debate, they should also be trusted to make informed political decisions. For socialists operating within their trade union, if they are seen to be receiving their ‘line’, unquestioned, from external forces; they run the risk of alienating members and ultimately hindering the development of solidarity.
The simple fact is that the left needs at least another five years to push forward with the progressive reforms required to make this union genuinely democratic and accountable to its members. Only by adopting a politically pluralistic structure – where branches, not the Executive, choose who they affiliate to – can this be achieved. This has to mean disaffiliation from Labour. At a recent area activist meeting in Glasgow, McCluskey made clear that he would not be willing to fund Labour’s next election campaign should they refuse to include the removal of anti-trade union laws in their next manifesto. Our job as rank and file members of Unite is to hold him to that promise.
Watch out for the forthcoming interview with Len McCluskey conducted by Bryan Simpson and Suki Sangha.