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Book Review Always Red – an incisive political memoir with lessons for the whole left

Morning Star editor BEN CHACKO finds much to recommend the autobiography of former Unite leader Len McCluskey

LEN McCLUSKEY’S autobiography Always Red has been trailed in the press as an attack on the new Labour leadership of Keir Starmer.

Many reviews have been hostile to its politics: but this will hardly surprise McCluskey, who has both been the victim of scurrilous media mistreatment and the witness to the concerted character assassination campaign launched across the mainstream media against Jeremy Corbyn for five years.

As he himself notes, “the British press, dominated by billionaire-owned, right-wing, Conservative-supporting newspapers, sets a narrative that treats all strikes as bad and almost all bosses as plucky entrepreneurs.

“The only daily newspaper that is consistently on the side of workers is the Morning Star” (yes, I was always going to quote that line).

Others, more sympathetic, still see Always Red as a memoir, the apologia of a retiring general secretary and the defence of a political project — Corbynism — that failed.

It does indeed mount a strong defence of Corbynism and Unite’s role in helping to shape and sustain that movement, but it is not merely a reflection on the past.

There are important lessons in this book and everyone interested in the future of the left and labour movement should read it.

That won’t be a chore. Always Red is written in the same direct, engaging style as McCluskey’s earlier book Why You Should Be a Trade Unionist, telling his story “sharply and to the point,” to quote another great trade union militant, the late Kevin Halpin.

Given it covers five decades of trade union and political activity, it is impressively contained in 300 pages of brisk prose.

It is unashamedly a political memoir: McCluskey relates his experiences growing up in Liverpool and speaks warmly of his family, but this is primarily a book about the left and the labour movement, and that is what makes it useful.

This shouldn’t imply that it is a heavy read. Always Red is witty and anecdotes about McCluskey’s life can be hilarious, from his failed bid to join the uprising in Paris in 1968 with his friend Tony Corrigan (not wishing to admit to friends that they never made it further than London, the pair whacked each other over the head with sticks to give themselves convincing “barricade wounds”) to the time he had to fake an interest in sporting architecture, art nouveau and provincial theatre to get through an interview (“I had soon used up my rehearsed lines…”)

The book divides neatly into two, From Cradle to Brave — recounting his life on the docks, early experiences as a trade unionist mentored in class struggle by communist shop stewards and his journey to head the largest trade union in the country from 2010 — and From Falkirk to Finsbury Park, which is primarily the story of the Corbyn movement and Unite’s role in it. 

McCluskey is as proud of Unite’s industrial record as its politics and is scathing about trade union leaders who would rather do deals with bosses than stand up for workers — there is real pain in his account of the way the Transport & General union under Bill Morris failed to stand by the Liverpool dockers in the 1990s. 

When he examines trade union defeats — and since the 1970s there have been a lot of those — he is always keen to draw lessons and look at whether different decisions might achieve a different outcome in the next battle. 

He identifies three innovations by Unite during his time as leader which he sees as crucial to its industrial strength: a very large strike fund, to stop workers being starved back to work; the creation of Unite Community, giving a voice to those out of work and in the process strengthening workers by adding community mobilisation to the union’s arsenal in disputes; and “the most exciting, leverage … an explosive tactic and not to be used lightly.” 

McCluskey identifies his successor, Sharon Graham (“the best organiser in the whole of Europe”), as the prime pioneer of this strategy, which had precursors in tactics used in disputes like the Magnet Kitchens strike of the 1990s. 

Leverage — identifying an aggressive employer’s weak points and targeting them through methods other than ordinary industrial action — infuriates bosses and is misrepresented in the media as targeting family members of company executives or otherwise personalising disputes. 

Actually while stunts “like showing up at a CEO’s golf club” sometimes feature, the more serious pressure is exerted by targeting contractors or raising the profile of industrial disputes with credit ratings agencies and market analysts, often affecting share value simply by talking about what the union plans to do.

It can also internationalise disputes, using trade union solidarity to make the voice of British workers heard in the boardrooms of global corporations.

McCluskey relates how the sacking of a Unite convener on the Crossrail project reverberated around the world when the union targeted a contractor on the project that also operated across the Atlantic (“Sharon had somehow managed to close a bridge in Toronto over a dispute in London”).

There is serious strategic thinking in these techniques about how unions can win for working people in a world dominated by giant transnationals.

Most politicos will, however, be reading Always Red for McCluskey’s inside take on the Corbyn years.

As Labour conference opens this year with a row over Starmer’s bid to reinstate the electoral college for picking party leaders, this appropriately begins with McCluskey’s shrewd decision to respond to a completely baseless attack on Unite by Ed Miliband in 2013 by welcoming the shift to a one member, one vote system — even though it was a proposal from the Labour right designed to weaken trade union influence. 

Many other union leaders were baffled by Unite’s support for the change — frankly, so was the Morning Star — but developments were to show how right it was.

The parliamentary party were too detached from reality to realise throwing a contest open to ordinary members and even non-members (registered supporters) would not strengthen the right.

The assumption was based on the belief that the public were to the right of the unions — but it failed to notice the deep dissatisfaction with the status quo across Britain and the hunger for radical change that gave birth to Corbynism.

That history is still worth telling because of the enormous efforts being made to erase it.

The Corbyn movement was a remarkable phenomenon: a leader with barely any support in Parliament, who only got on the ballot through MPs who were certain he couldn’t win lending him votes, more than doubling the size of the Labour Party and bagging it in 2017 its biggest vote share increase in seven decades on a socialist programme. 

Establishment critics sniff that Labour still lost, or claim (against the evidence) that this was an anti-Brexit vote and a more right-wing leader would have won against Theresa May. So it is vitally important that the left does not allow myths to take hold. 

Labour’s vote in 2017 rose sharply across the whole country, in Leave and Remain areas, in Labour strongholds, throughout the Red Wall lost in 2019, in Tory heartlands.

And given the circumstances — blanket hostility from the media, two years into the daily demonisation of Corbyn, one year after almost the entire parliamentary party tried to unseat him — the result was an astonishing testament to the power of that socialist manifesto and of ordinary people to win over others in the teeth of Establishment propaganda.

McCluskey is absolutely right to focus on the epochal importance of the 2017 election and the hope it should continue to inspire that the left can win.

Of course we all know what followed, and McCluskey’s account of the 2017-19 period is dispiriting.

On attributing Labour’s collapsing appeal to its reneging on the promise to respect the EU referendum he is in agreement with the analysis consistently made by this newspaper. 

He sadly recounts the infestation of the party by “Remainitis” (“Emily Thornberry[’s] … condition had become so severe she had taken to wearing a blue dress and a gold star necklace in an effort to look like a walking EU flag…”) and the bitterness this caused among Unite members.

Some, like Starmer, may have understood the damage they were doing to Corbyn’s chances and not cared — the chapter New Management is convincing enough in depicting Starmer’s fundamental dishonesty — but it is a sad fact that many sincere Corbyn supporters, including some at the very top, were complicit in the collapse of collective discipline and the breakdown of all attempts to forge a compromise that would have halted the Remain drift.

Corbyn, too, does not escape censure for failing to give the clear lead that might have stopped the rot.

The result is history. But the socialist resurgence need not be. The hundreds of thousands inspired by Corbynism still exist; and even the 2019 result saw Labour win more votes than in 2005, 2010 or 2015.

In Labour, the left is taking a battering from a vengeful right. But we have recent evidence that things can be very, very different. 

Always Red is a salutary reminder of that — a fascinating, funny, moving read, but above all an authoritative argument for the capacity of the labour movement to change the world.

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