With over 1.4 million members, Unite is Britain’s biggest union, representing more than a fifth of all trade unionists in the UK. A mainly private sector union, it is also well represented in parts of the public sector—local government, the health service, the Ministry of Defence and other government departments.1 What Unite does matters and its approach to combating austerity and defending services, jobs, wages and conditions could make a real difference—not just for Unite members, but for the working class as a whole.
Since becoming general secretary of Unite in 2010, Len McCluskey has come to be regarded as Britain’s most prominent left wing union leader and there is no doubt he has made a difference, creating space for the left to organise. Totally committed to the project of reclaiming Labour from the right wing politics that continue to dominate the leadership of the party, he was been willing to clash with Ed Miliband, warning him that if he adopts an “austerity-lite” programme then “he’ll be defeated and he’ll be cast into the dustbin of history”.2
McCluskey openly supported the student revolt in 2010-11, strongly condemning the actions of the police, and linked Unite with UK Uncut in a deliberate move to identify the union with direct action and the most militant sections of the anti-cuts movement.
Before the Olympics last summer he was condemned in the media when he publicly argued: “The unions, and the general community, have got every right to be out protesting. If the Olympics provide us with an opportunity, then that’s exactly one that we should be looking at”.3
His popularity among union members soared when he called on the hundreds of thousands of workers on a Trades Union Congress (TUC) demonstration in autumn 2012 to give a show of hands in favour of a general strike. Perhaps millions across the country were cheering him on in their living rooms when, appearing on the BBC’s Question Time, he gave voice to the growing anger over the cuts mantra seeping from all corners of the establishment. More recently he ensured that Unite was a powerful backer of the People’s Assembly in June, and his profile helped it pull together over 4,000 people to discuss alternatives to austerity.
As the leader of Unite he has pursued an ambitious political strategy which combines industrial, political and community strands to combat both the employers’ and the government’s offensives. This includes launching community branches to organise the unemployed, carers, pensioners and community activists. Unite Community aims to pull those not in workplaces into the trade union movement and to link up community campaigns with organised workplaces in localities. In many areas the community branches are starting to play an important role in opposition to the Tories’ attacks on welfare and against the Bedroom Tax.
But the key element of McCluskey’s project is “reclaiming the Labour Party”. To win the ideological battle in Labour and build the left within it, Unite is backing “CLASS” a new thinktank fronted by Owen Jones.4 McCluskey has argued publicly and throughout the union that Labour can be reclaimed by convincing more and more Unite activists to join the party, fight for Unite policies and get more union members selected as candidates for Westminster, Holyrood and the local councils. Every branch secretary in Unite has been written to and urged to promote this Labour Party recruitment drive. Under McCluskey’s leadership Unite remains the largest contributor to the Labour Party.5 The Unite leadership’s line on the Labour party leadership contest was a decisive factor in Ed Miliband’s election.
But there is little evidence that Unite has any influence on Labour policy. As Labour councils have implemented cuts, Unite’s Labour councillors have mounted little in the way of opposition—in the few instances where they have, they have been suspended with little or no support from the union. McCluskey has been openly critical of Labour’s failure to repeal the anti trade union laws, and Miliband’s support for the public sector pay freeze and opposition to strikes. The Labour right accuse him of trying to rig the composition of the parliamentary party and local councils through the union’s sponsorship of candidates. This has blown up in Miliband’s face, culminating in the fiasco of the candidate selection at Falkirk in Scotland, where Unite was accused of signing up local people to the Labour Party without their knowledge in order to ensure the selection of a favourable parliamentary candidate. Both the candidate Karie Murphy and local party chairman Stevie Deans were suspended from the Labour Party in the furore. Unite has recently been cleared of any wrongdoing. Yet, with these events in Falkirk as a flashpoint, McCluskey has headed up what appeared to be a significant collision between the trade unions and the Labour Party around issues of union funding for the party and representation.
“Red Len”, as he has been dubbed by the right, has come to be seen as something of a firebrand among the trade union bureaucracy, even during the pensions dispute of 2011 despite the reality of a sometimes ambiguous collaborative position in the rotten, cobbled together deal, and a failure to follow up strong words with actual action.
Alongside Owen Jones, McCluskey has emerged as a key figure, a driving force in a revival of the Labour left and a call to arms to reclaim Labour advocated as one prominent response to austerity. So what is Len’s strategy for the union, what are its roots and what are the politics that lie behind it?
How Unite became a mega-union and why
Unite has only existed since 2007, the result of a merger between the Transport and General Workers Union (T&G)—a major general union since 1922—and Amicus which had only recently itself been born out of the merger of the Manufacturing, Science and Finance union (MSF) and the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union (AEEU) in 2001. In 2004 both the Union for the Finance Industry (UNIFI) and the Graphical, Paper and Media Union (GPMU) merged into Amicus.6 In July 2002 the unexpected victory in the Amicus general secretary election by the then relatively unknown left wing challenger and regional officer Derek Simpson, over the right wing incumbent Sir Keith Jackson, laid the ground for the T&G/Amicus merger.7 By 2009 Simpson had shifted rightwards and lost around a third of his 2002 vote to the left rank and file candidate Jerry Hicks in a union twice the size. Nonetheless, Simpson’s 2002 election victory was celebrated as a rejection of the Blairite partnership based approach that had run the union for decades.8
Likewise, the election of left wing official Tony Woodley as T&G general secretary in 2003 was seen as another bloody nose for Blairism in the unions.9 Woodley and Simpson were far from being anything like rank and file candidates, but it was significant that Woodley, an anti-war general secretary, was elected in one of Britain’s largest unions. These two election results were part of a general trend in unions—including the RMT, PCS, CWU, NUJ and others—where a left that challenged New Labour policies, the “Awkward Squad” as it came to be known, was making gains in the bureaucracy.
These left gains came against a backdrop of decades of very low levels of class struggle and declining union density. Unite’s formation in 2007 fitted the common sense notion that merger was the only way forward and that attempts to boost membership through recruitment drives were otherwise doomed to fail, as the unions were losing members faster than they could recruit. What was missing was any real acknowledgement that the most crucial element in any union’s ability to grow substantially is its capacity and willingness to lead militant and successful struggles. In the run up to the merger plan, one T&G member summed up the flaw in the thinking that defined the merger strategy, explaining that it:
Represents an acceptance that the way unions prosper is by pooling resources in a shrinking market rather than going out aggressively to recruit and organise. I’d much rather there were two or three unions in an industry that were fighting to sign up workers than have a super-union which has a lot of members but doesn’t break into new workers, women workers, immigrant workers, low paid workers. It was great when the T&G recruited cleaners at Canary Wharf. There should be 100 such campaigns by every union.10
Unite has faced an apparent membership decline since it was formed in 2007. The combined impact of inflated membership figures prior to merger, an ageing membership and job losses have all taken their toll. Devising a strategy to reverse this is critical but here the common sense myth that the unions are in terminal decline is unhelpful—the picture in Unite is more complex. Membership is declining in some traditional areas but is undoubtedly growing in others.
In the run up to the merger Tony Woodley—then T&G general secretary—did introduce an organising strategy in an attempt to address the union’s decline to around just 800,000 members in 2003.11 Union funds were directed towards this aim, and by 2007 some 80 new organisers had been brought in.12 At this point, when the merger took place, Len McCluskey was appointed assistant general secretary for industrial strategy, working closely with Woodley.
Unite has relaunched its organising drive, continuing under the direction of Woodley, combining recruitment with an emphasis on workplace and shop stewards’ organisation. There has been real success in some sectors—finance, aviation, the voluntary sector, food processing and health.13 Unite claims over 75,000 new members had joined the union by the end of November 2011 since the National Organising Department was established in 2005.14 In the first six months of 2011 the union claims to have recruited 1,221 new members at Sainsbury’s and in the nine months leading up to July 2011 it recruited 1,739 new members in local government. In the food sector 18,101 new members were recruited between 2005 and 2008. Two years later, in 2010, the total Unite membership figure within the same companies had grown to 19,811.15
Another T&G member outlined in 2007 the fact that it was possible, but not at all inevitable, that the newly merged mega-union would be a positive step towards boosting union growth and clout: “The new union can either preside over its own stagnation and remain linked to New Labour’s ball and chain—or it can flourish by launching a vigorous fightback to secure decent pay, conditions and job security”.16
Political approach and organising strategy
In many ways McCluskey’s strategy is a dynamic extension of Woodley’s approach, but in a dramatically changed environment where the onset of the economic crisis and Cameron’s vicious austerity drive has sharpened class antagonisms. The same components of a political approach—for Woodley this was represented in his willingness to speak at Stop the War events, for McCluskey in his prominent role in the People’s Assembly—combined with both a stress on developing a serious industrial organising strategy and fundamentally, the aim of reclaiming Labour.
There are many positives in Unite’s strategy today. But ultimately the method is still the top-down one that runs through the history of the T&G general secretaries. McCluskey, whose background is as a worker on the Liverpool docks, is often accused by right wingers of being a throwback to the firebrand Jack Jones, who led the T&G throughout the 1970s and essentially had the same style based on left rhetoric and a top-down approach. The key difference was that in the 1970s there were powerful shop stewards’ networks and a thriving rank and file movement able to seize on Jones’s rhetoric and push further towards real action. Today such a movement that can make union leaders accountable to their words does not yet exist. And, as a number of mainstream commentators have noted, behind the left rhetoric McCluskey’s approach is defined by “his ability to cut deals” and a tendency to try and avoid high profile strikes.
McCluskey’s approach is an articulate analysis of austerity as a class driven political attack that requires a political response. This is seen most evidently in his involvement in the People’s Assembly, in Unite’s role in driving the 29 September demonstration at the Tory party conference in Manchester, in McCluskey’s support for the student revolt and UK Uncut and in the creation of Unite Community. And this approach was also the main component of Unite’s response in the TUC consultation on the practicalities of a general strike:
In Unite’s view this is the best way to present the issue of mass co-ordinated strike action politically. Attempting to knit together a “general strike” on a plausible industrial basis would narrow our base of support and likely prove impractical…a broad approach, of the unions, acting on behalf of the community as a whole, would also help win broad support and conviction among our members themselves… For some colleagues, the legal position presents insurmountable obstacles to calling a “general strike”. Unite does not share that view. It is true our movement still labours under the most reactionary trade union legislation in Europe. But this should never be an excuse for paralysis…therefore we believe that the nettle needs to be grasped—that a 24-hour strike against austerity would be an explicitly political strike.17
100 Percent Unite and the leverage strategy
Combined with this emphasis on placing the attacks on workers’ pay, jobs and conditions amidst a wider anti-austerity politics, Unite has developed a conscious organising strategy. This couples initiatives like the 100 Percent Unite Campaign—a serious and welcome drive to maximise union membership in workplaces with recognition, developing stewards and strengthening organisation18—with a vibrant, visible leverage campaign. The crux of the leverage strategy is using external pressure, often by noisy teams of Unite full-time organisers decked out in a sea of red Unite flags and vuvuzelas, sometimes accompanied by a giant inflatable rat and always a sound-system, to target offending companies, their client companies and even bosses’ houses and dinner events. Despite its main focus being on activity outside the workplace, the union’s leverage campaign should not simply be dismissed. First of all we can’t ignore the fact that it was a central factor in the recent fantastic victory of the nearly year long campaign to reinstate victimised and blacklisted health and safety rep and leading rank and file activist Frank Morris on Crossrail. But it is also interesting that those leading the leverage strategy learned their methods from the six month long 2011-12 dispute led by rank and file construction workers that beat back the BESNA pay attack and halted a 35 percent pay cut for electricians.
The whole militant feel to many of these leverage protests, right down to the presence of a booming sound-system, is an attempt by organisers to mimic the creativity that characterised the weekly rank and file dawn pickets outside big construction sites during the sparks’ dispute. This style of activity, now most identified with Unite’s leverage campaign as a result of the union rightly shifting to pour resources into the Anti-Blacklisting Campaign, is also spilling over onto Unite picket lines in actual strikes. For example, the One Housing Group workers who have been striking this autumn could be seen and heard the moment you stepped out of the station. This was mainly because the turnout on the picket line was strong—strikers themselves had organised effectively across the workplaces to build the action. But the presence of the giant rat and sound-system certainly added to the confidence of the picket line.
So one element of the leverage protests has been Unite organisers energetically borrowing tactics that workers developed themselves—having a loud, visible, confident and militant presence. But what can easily get lost in all this is that in the sparks’ dispute it was not just how lively the protests outside sites were—or how many bosses’ offices and homes came under fire—that determined the dispute’s victory. It was primarily the role of the workers themselves and the fear that they would utilise their collective power and hit bosses’ profits, for example the threats from workers on big sites like Grangemouth that they would walk out and grind production to a halt (the very same threat is what led bosses to hastily lift Stevie Deans’s suspension from his job on the site following the Falkirk accusations). That’s something that ultimately no number of full-time organisers, no matter how energetic, can substitute for.
The Olympic bonus bus strike in 2012 was both an example of the power Unite has on the London buses, and the potential for leverage style protests to veer towards substituting for the source of that strength—workers’ strikes. The response during the action from bus workers was huge, and when Unite suspended the strikes to put the offer, the fact that 29 percent voted to reject reflected that around a third of members felt the union could have won more. The fact that Unite mobilised, sending squads of organisers and supportive socialist activists out from its HQ to target the garages after the injunction, was significant as it saw for perhaps the first time physical protests organised against this form of attack on the right to strike. But often there was a separation between these protests from the bus workers themselves—who in some garages were unclear what was going on.
The role of rank and file pressure
The fact that Unite leaders did move to channel resources into taking on the blacklisters, with around 1,000 leverage protests, or “hits”, cannot be completely separated from the pressure built up by the rank and file throughout the successful sparks’ dispute—the only serious rank and file organisation of its kind that currently exists (this pressure interacted with unite officials’ desire to distance the union from a history of alleged collusion of some of Amicus’ officials with blacklisters).19 Pressure from the rank and file group, and its activists efforts in the Blacklist Support Group, also played a role in shaping how the campaign developed—for example, by continually pushing for leverage protests to be combined with recruitment drives on the sites. Taking into account the state of union organisation in the construction industry, it should be seen as no mean feat that Unite reports 250 workers joined from the sites off the back of the campaign. And Frank Morris’s victory opens up the possibility for big results from a rigorous follow up from the sites in the aftermath.
It’s right that members, activists and reps should respond enthusiastically to the union machine’s push through its 100 Percent Campaign to strengthen union density and organisation. For example, trade unionists most successfully boosted numbers of trains and coaches put on by their unions to the Manchester demonstration by fighting to quickly fill existing transport, rather than starting by complaining that it wouldn’t be enough. Much in the same way, the method for socialists should be to grasp such initiatives as the 100 Percent Campaign and drive the union leadership further on them.
But there is a fundamental weakness in the union’s strategy, and it is the same gap that was at the heart of the flawed thinking behind the merger itself as a steadfast solution to membership decline—removing the role of strikes in building unions.
Strikes build unions
Time and time again experience has shown that when unions lead a fightback, they boost their membership figures far more quickly than they do through any organising strategy that ignores this element. The impact of the 30 November 2011 strike alone on union membership provides clear, unequivocal evidence for this. At the end of January 2012 unions found that membership had surged as a result of the pensions strike. Astonishingly, a third of all the members who joined Unison in 2011 did so in October and November. The union also recorded a 126 percent rise in applications after the strike. In the UCU lecturers’ union, whose total membership in early 2012 was 122,000, some 2,500 people joined in November 2011 alone. In the GMB 12,000 joined in November 2011 and 8,000 in October in the build up to the strike. This compares to 7,000 and 6,000 in the same months in 2010. It wasn’t just the bigger or more prominent unions who benefited. The Chartered Society of Physiotherapists (CSP), who, along with other professional healthcare unions, noticeably delivered exceptionally large turnouts on picket lines and demonstrations, saw a 15 percent increase in membership last year. When unions fight, they grow.20
You cannot talk about Unite’s industrial strategy without noting another theme that has run through a number of disputes where the union leadership has left workers to stomach closures, cuts and attacks on conditions without leading any serious resistance. Below are just some of the examples—there are others too—of key moments where this dynamic played out.
A tale of missed opportunities
In the Ellesmere Port dispute in the car industry Unite’s role was to encourage workers to accept attacks on their conditions that increased the rate of their exploitation on the basis that their only options were between a pay cut and job cuts. The onus was on the union leadership to give a lead and argue that strikes could drive back the assault. But they didn’t. Disgracefully, this left the ruling class able to celebrate “that British workers are more flexible, competitive and efficient—and less militant—than their counterparts in Germany” where a car factory was to be closed with the loss of thousands of jobs. Cameron was able to congratulate the unions on being part of a “team effort” along with managers and the government for keeping British production going.21
In spring 2012 packaging workers at MMP were locked out by bosses in response to a strike against closure. It would be wrong to not acknowledge that the leverage style international protests were significant in helping to win better redundancy terms, but these tactics alone couldn’t produce much more than that. The tactics needed to stop the site’s closure, using industrial clout and the potential for a high profile occupation, were not put in place.
Unite’s role, along with the GMB, in the abandonment of the Remploy workers striking back against a wave of factory closures, should not be forgotten. There was both strong support among the strikers for the action, and widespread heartfelt solidarity for what was a highly political strike against the Tories’ attempts to force disabled people through cruel ATOS testing to strip them of benefits while at the same time slashing jobs for disabled workers. Yet union leaders decided, right at a critical moment in the run up to the Paralympics, to call off the next national strike planned in August 2012, leaving many of the workers angry and resulting in the wave of closures going ahead, with 1,700 workers thrown on the dole.
The Unite leadership also passed up the opportunity in March 2012 for an inspiring display of workers’ collective power when it failed to call strikes after 2,000 oil tanker drivers voted by 90 percent for action, despite key demands not being won like transfer of pension conditions and a minimum pay level. It was clear from the media frenzy at the outbreak of the dispute, generated simply by the prospect of a potential strike, how quickly workers could have won. Many will recall the memorable and panicked advice from Francis Maude that “a bit of extra fuel in a jerry can is a sensible precaution to take”.22 While the union’s leadership did recommend rejection in the final ballot that saw the deal accepted by 51 percent, the leadership frittered away the momentum by going straight into ACAS conciliation talks rather than call action following the tremendous initial vote for strikes. Even after reps rejected the bosses’ initial offer, action wasn’t called.
McCluskey and the pensions dispute
In the public sector Unite has often benefited from many Unison members’ frustration at their union leaders’ failure to follow up the magnificent turnout it fought for on the demonstration on 26 March 2011 and the picket lines on 30 November that year. There have been examples, particularly in health and local government, where at times chunks of disillusioned Unison members—looking for a lead to fight back but not confident or organised to challenge their own union leaders—have left to join Unite, seeing it as a way of addressing the lack of lead in resistance.
But in reality, while such attempted shortcuts are understandable—and are a reflection of a lack of rank and file confidence and organisation—they have not proved a successful way of overcoming the problem. McCluskey’s reputation as firebrand left winger pitched against the more right wing leaders such as Unison’s Dave Prentis and the GMB’s Paul Kenny doesn’t quite hold up when you put it to the test of action delivered rather than just words. On 19 December 2011 when PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka stood on the steps of the TUC’s Congress House and publicly condemned the deal put forward, he did not stand alongside McCluskey. He stood alone. Unite recommended acceptance of this offer in local government. In health it rejected the deal, and although Unite did take part in the 10 May strike of 2012 alongside PCS and UCU, the number of workplaces actually called out on strike was only in the dozens and Unite failed to utilise the potential political capital in bringing health workers out on strike against a Tory government that is savaging the NHS.
It’s for these reasons that left candidate Jerry Hicks this year won nearly 80,000 votes in the general secretary election—a staggering 36 percent of the vote. An echo, on a smaller scale, of this was the more recent result in a by-election of the London and Eastern Region seat on the union’s executive that saw socialist and rank and filer Ian Bradley muster 42 percent of the vote. These results are both part of a more general context in which a layer is developing across the trade union movement, albeit not as an organised force, who are expressing frustration at the lack of lead from the top and a desire to go beyond what union leaders are offering.
The existence of this tension was present at the People’s Assembly in June. It played out rather interestingly in the closing plenary, when despite receiving a generally electric reception from the 4,000 strong crowd, McCluskey was also heckled consistently, and by a significant section of the audience. First there were cries of “Strike! Strike!” until he agreed, “and yes mass industrial strike action” to which the whole crowd burst into thunderous applause. But even this was quickly followed up by calls of “Name the day!” until McCluskey chuckled and responded, “I won’t name the day, I’ll leave that to Mark”, gesturing towards Mark Serwotka.23
These events are significant not only because they give yet another snapshot of the mood for strikes, and a frustration that they are not being called, among trade union activists in the best organised sections. They also expose tensions at the level of the trade union bureaucracy, and where McCluskey really sits within that dynamic. His throwaway joke about leaving naming the day to Serwotka is a reference to the PCS’s leading role in bringing workers out throughout the last year but often being left by other union leaders to fight alone. While this is a reality, and therefore seemed a fitting comment, it is actually ridiculous for the general secretary of the biggest union in the country, who wears his reputation as a hard left militant leader proudly, to pass off responsibility to a union less than a third the size of Unite to set the pace of the struggle.
Serwotka subtly picked up on this in his speech on the day when he carefully responded: “In the PCS, we have had a strike in every single week for the past three months, and now we’re consulting our members because we know we need to escalate to do more. But my plea is this—how much easier would it be for us to win if every union joined us in strikes. It’s possible”.24
Waiting for Miliband?
The development of serious industrial organising strategy, the analysis of and political approach to the crisis and austerity, his style of firmly identifying as a left leader of a wider anti-austerity struggle through adopting movementist language—all these fundamental elements of McCluskey’s strategy for the union must be seen through the prism of his vision of reclaiming the Labour Party for working class people as a solution.
It is not a half-hearted attempt to transform Labour; it is an actively pursued goal with targets, set out in a 2011 strategy document to “win 5,000 Unite members to join the Labour Party by December 2012” and urge Unite activists “to consider becoming Labour candidates at all levels”.25 Since his election as general secretary in 2010 he has systematically nurtured a tension between himself and Miliband starting right from his first speech as Labour leader when McCluskey heckled “Rubbish” as Miliband condemned strikes. McCluskey has consciously and consistently found points to go head to head with Miliband, with the tension culminating in the recent Falkirk debacle. How embarrassing for Miliband and the Labour leadership that even their own internal investigation found nothing on the union. Yet the pressure was on both McCluskey and Miliband, with Unite members in Scotland having already passed a motion to the union’s executive proposing that Unite boycott the Labour Party conference if the two suspended as a result of the Falkirk accusations were not reinstated.
But the contradiction is that, despite these regular collisions, the fallout from Falkirk also showed how ultimately McCluskey softened, accepting Miliband’s proposed change that members would have to opt in to contributing to the Labour Party. He argued that this move would actually give more power to the union, as Miliband would be guaranteed fewer funds and have to vie for more at McCluskey’s whim.
Still, given that the move on Miliband’s part signified yet another attempt to distance himself from the unions, McCluskey’s softening represented another example of how a strategy to reclaim and influence Labour can often be pulled in the opposite direction, encouraging union leaders to hold back in the interests of remaining tied to Labour. Another expression of this was McCluskey’s snap decision to hold the general secretary election this year, in order to avoid an embarrassment for Labour during the next general election.26
Nonetheless, it is significant that in an article at the beginning of autumn McCluskey responded to the question of whether he would rule out Unite “eventually taking its ball elsewhere” saying: “I wouldn’t rule anything out—in extraordinary times, extraordinary things happen. In my view, students of politics in 50 years time may well look back on this period and realise just how incredibly important it was”.27
The coalition government is nasty and is trying to restructure British capitalism in ways that Thatcher could only dream of. As recent events remind us, it is clearly not a strong government but a weak and divided one. However, it is hell-bent on forcing its austerity plans through and, while this does not guarantee effective resistance, it certainly ratchets up the level of class anger. In this situation Unite is an important factor.
A year ago a Unite activist writing in Socialist Review pointed out the danger with Len McCluskey’s strategy:
Fighting inside the Labour Party will involve mounting a real challenge to Miliband and Balls over a whole range of issues, from taxing the rich, to reversing Tory and Labour attacks on the NHS, defending welfare benefits and migrant labour, renationalising the railways and the energy companies, demanding the end of the anti-union laws and so on. Will this happen, especially when the countdown to the next election starts and the pressure to “keep quiet” to get Labour elected grows? McCluskey is gambling on shifting Labour to the left. The danger is that, instead, the union will tie itself to a Labour Party that won’t deliver.28
Since then we have seen concrete evidence of what this “pressure to keep quiet” means and that when push comes to shove, there are strict limits on McCluskey’s readiness to challenge the Labour right. When he manoeuvred his Unite executive into pulling the general secretary election forward, Len had hoped to be crowned this year unopposed. But, as already noted above, it clearly backfired on him.
Too many union leaders have already decided that the only hope is to sit tight and wait for Labour. And if the Falkirk fiasco represented a marching towards the abyss by Miliband and McCluskey alike, events at this year’s TUC Congress in Bournemouth in September marked efforts to step back from the brink. While Miliband’s speech was vague at best—condemning the “abuse of” zero hours contracts rather than condemning their existence at all—and remained firmly committed to cuts and a “One Nation” vision, his attempt to evoke the sense of Labour as the guardian of honest working Britons was an effort, if a weak one, to thaw growing tensions. Despite the surprise of harsh words on the speech from Unison’s Dave Prentis and the GMB’s Paul Kenny—who were likely more angered by the continued attack on the unions’ Labour link rather than the abandonment of their members’ conditions and reinforcement of the Tory cuts mantra—McCluskey proclaimed Ed as “a real leader” and failed to criticise.29
Although the Tories have a mountain to climb there is no guarantee that Miliband will win the next election and even if he does he offers very little change. In early June he promised that, if elected in 2015, a Labour government would impose a cap on welfare spending that isn’t affected by the fluctuations of the business cycle. He has even toyed with including pensions in this cap. To date Miliband has refused to commit to repealing the hated Bedroom Tax.
Len McCluskey’s variant on this is that unless Miliband changes tack and adopts radical policies then Labour will lose, though recent events particularly, and a look back through McCluskey’s record, seem to suggest the prospect of any imminent break with Labour on Unite’s part is slim. Either way waiting for Labour is not a real option. Instead we need much more of a fightback and in the course of that resistance to develop a stronger political alternative to both the Tories and Labour.
As International Socialism went to press, the potential for large-scale workers’ resistance was still hanging in the balance, with hundreds of thousands of teachers set to strike, a big vote for national strikes by firefighters, and a mass meeting of around 2,000 postal reps kick-starting a national strike ballot. Attempting to build networks and organisation among the layer of workers frustrated by the vacuum of leadership in the unions, and who want to see coordinated strikes to beat austerity, will be a crucial task in the coming months.
2: Watt, 2013.
3: Sparrow, 2012.
4: Mulholland, 2012.
5: Newman, 2013.
6: Murray, 2008, p198.
7: Murray, 2008, p198.
8: Socialist Worker, 2009.
9: Cox, 2003.
10: Socialist Worker, 2005.
11: Murray, 2008, p203.
12: Murray, 2008, p203.
16: Sherry, 2007.
17: Unite the Union, 2012
19: Basketter, 2011.
20: Lezard, 2012.
21: Massey, 2012.
22: Malik and others, 2012.
26: BBC News, 2013.
27: Harris, 2013.
28: Cimorelli, 2012.
29: Taylor, 2013.
Basketter, Simon, 2011, “Victimised construction workers fight for justice”, Socialist Worker
(1 November 2011), www.socialistworker.co.uk/art/26075/Victimised+construction+workers+fight+for+justice
BBC News, 2013, “Len McCluskey re-elected as Unite general secretary” (14 April 2013),
Cox, Judy, 2003, “How awkward will Tony Woodley be?”, Socialist Worker (7 June 2003),
Cimorelli, Eddie, 2012, “Where is Unite Going?”, Socialist Review (September 2012),
Lezard, Tim, 2012, “Unions report surge in membership thanks to pensions strike”,
Union News (27 January 2012), http://union-news.co.uk/2012/01/unions-report-surge-in-membership-thanks-to-pensions-strike/
Malik, Shiv, Andrew Sparrow and Ciara Leeming, 2012, “Francis Maude urged to quit over petrol panic as union rules out Easter strike”, Guardian (30 March 2012),
Massey, Ray, 2012, “UK’s Vauxhall factory deal saves thousands of jobs but the Germans will lose out”, Daily Mail (16 May 2012), www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2145374/Vauxhalls-Ellesmere-Port-plant-Cheshire-saved-thousands-jobs.html
Mullholland, Hélène, 2012, “Unions back thinktank to remind Labour of roots in working lives”, Guardian (16 August 2012), www.theguardian.com/politics/2012/aug/16/unions-back-thinktank-reshape-labour-policy
Murray, Andrew, 2008, The T_&_G Story: A History of the Transport & General Workers’ Union 1922-2007 (Lawrence & Wishart).
Newman, Cathy, 2013,”FactCheck: party donors—who funds Labour and the Tories?”, Channel 4 News (15 July 2013) http://blogs.channel4.com/factcheck/labour-funding-party-donors-tories-factcheck/13899
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