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Interview ‘Unite has a psyche of fighting back’

After 11 years leading Britain’s biggest union, LEN McCLUSKEY talks to the Star about how Corbyn changed Labour forever, the current gap in left leadership and Unite’s continued role amid what promise to be turbulent times ahead

LEN McCLUSKEY’s 11-year leadership of Unite covered a period of intense political turbulence — Conservative-Lib Dem “austerity,” Brexit, the rise and fall of Corbynism, a global pandemic.

Proud as he is of having helped build a strong “fighting-back” union, which he is confident will go from strength to strength under new leader Sharon Graham, he is best known to the wider public as a champion of the Labour left and the Jeremy Corbyn movement in particular.

Unite’s strategy is credited — including by many of its enemies, such as Peter Mandelson — with playing a key role both in the slight leftward shift of Labour under Ed Miliband from 2010 and the more dramatic turn to full-blooded socialism from 2015. 

When I speak to him at Labour conference 2021, with the Labour right back in charge and waging a relentless war on the left, I ask him straight out: does this mean that strategy has failed?

“It clearly didn’t fail, because that’s what happened: we did drive Labour to the left and we were instrumental in the rise of Jeremy Corbyn.

“We helped bring about one of the greatest phenomena in British political history that I can recall in 50-odd years of activity: Corbyn brought hundreds of thousands of young people into politics.

“In my view it changed British politics forever and Labour politics forever. And we came very close to power in 2017, and we need to remember that.

“The right wing is constantly trying to turn our attention to 2019, and say that was a rejection of Corbynism, but of course it wasn’t: it was a Brexit election.

“The very people who are criticising Corbyn were the ones responsible for the confusion of ordinary working people who believed in Labour but felt betrayed by its morphing into a Remain party. That’s what happened in our Red Wall seats.

“So we’ve got to constantly remind people that 2017 demonstrated that ordinary people respond positively to radical policies, and those policies are popular still.

“We’ve undoubtedly had a setback and the Labour leadership is now engaged in trying to marginalise the left once more. We’ve been here before.”

But when we were here before it lasted a long time. After 1983 the Labour right were able to create a narrative that the election had been lost by the left and shut the left out of Labour politics for three decades. 

Already the mass media are complicit in creating similar myths about Corbynism, and the left are dissipated and demoralised. Isn’t it likely that we’ll be on the sidelines for another 20, 30 years?

“There’s undoubtedly a danger there, and I lived through that period after the ’83 defeat when it was blamed on the left, when the fact that the right split away to form the SDP, the treachery of the right, gets completely forgotten.

“They’re trying to peddle exactly the same message. But a difference is that in 1983 we hadn’t got 2017 in our very recent memory.

“In 2017, 12.9 million people voted for Jeremy Corbyn. The biggest Labour surge in decades. 

“And that’s why we have to be persistent in arguing that we have shown the left can win. 2019 was a Brexit election. The Tories won their landslide on getting Brexit done — they barely said anything else. 

“Labour’s position on Brexit was a disaster. It was a slow-motion car crash that we at least saw coming since, well, certainly the beginning of 2018, and the seats lost were overwhelmingly Leave seats.

“So we need to keep flagging up 2017. You’re right about the demoralisation. A lot of people in Labour were not necessarily committed socialists, but they loved Corbyn — he had this incredible touch that just drew people wherever he went, as we saw when he toured the country or at his rallies. 

“Now there’s a gap in leadership on the left and that is a problem. We have to sort that out, there has to be leadership. And once there is leadership, people will start to see that it’s only the left that is saying anything.

“Since 2008 and the financial crisis, the Labour right have been bankrupt. They haven’t come up with a vision since then. Only the left have any idea what to do about the problems facing ordinary people.”

One source of hope is that McCluskey traces Labour’s leftward shift to a left shift in the trade union movement that began with the “awkward squad” in the late 1990s, a left reaction to Blairism. There is still a strong left in the trade union movement. But some on it are shifting their focus away from Labour. Is the movement going left, or right?

“Obviously it’s early. You’ve just had the election of three new general secretaries in the three biggest unions: Christina [McAnea at Unison], Gary [Smith at GMB] and of course Sharon.

“Sharon is a force of nature. She’s very much on the left, but of course she wants to do things differently, and she’s absolutely right that we can’t wait around for a Labour government, but have to drive the political message through the workplace. 

“She’s experienced at it. When we had the campaign against TTIP” (the proposed EU-US trade pact pushing deregulation and privatisation of services on both sides of the Atlantic) “she helped build campaigns all over the country, with over 70,000 people involved in different communities, not under the banner of Unite but individual campaigns.

“So I’m very confident that my union will continue to be a strong, fighting-back union, not just in the workplace, but in the community and in the political arena. Anybody who thinks that Sharon is not political is wrong, and will soon find that out.”

McCluskey remains convinced that the Labour Party is a crucial battleground and potential vehicle for the left — for now.

“It can’t be dismissed. Who knows what’s around the corner, with the bakers disaffiliating, and I know other unions are deeply unhappy and may be keeping a close eye on the situation, and others still aren’t affiliated at all, like PCS. 

“It’s at its most precarious stage I’ve ever known, this kind of McCarthyism in the party is quite different from previous right-wing regimes and it worries me greatly.

“The next five years will be quite exciting, I think it is not clear what will happen on the political left. The debates about proportional representation on the one hand, the debates about federalism on the other, are things I’m keen to see develop, and might see Labour begin to build back in regions and nations as it is in some areas.

“Scotland is lost to us for a generation, because it is not perceived as being a radical party and it is outflanked to the left and right. And the SNP has had two very charismatic leaders in Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon. 

“At least half of our members there are voting SNP. That’s why we took a neutral position on independence — and as I say in the book,” (recently published autobiography Always Red) “had I been in Scotland in 2014, I’d have voted for independence. 

“That’s still very much an issue. It’s time for a proper debate about federalism, and if we succeed in putting a different question into the Scottish question, whether there might be a future for a federation with England and Wales — it sounds fanciful at the moment, but my experience tells me politics changes fast, and that might be the only future for Scottish Labour.”

Whatever that future holds, McCluskey is confident Unite will be playing a big part in shaping it.

“There’s no doubt Unite is a stronger union than it was a decade ago. Unite is financially very strong, the richest union.

“A union that has a psyche of fighting back. That has a strike fund that gives striking workers £70 a day.

“And it’s not coincidental that we have a huge number of strikes. Five times as many strike ballots as every other union put together. And that’s because we’ve built a consciousness among our activists that says — we are going to stand up, we’re going to fight, and our union is going to be with us.

“I’m very proud of that. And that culture that is engrained in our movement is certainly engrained in Sharon Graham. She has been an integral part of shaping that fighting-back union over the last 11 years.

“These are difficult times — furlough is finished, members will be made redundant. Horrible, vicious times. But so has the last decade been, with austerity and Conservative governments. Unite has shown the power that organised labour still wields in these circumstances. We’re not afraid of anybody.”

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