In the first half of this month I’ve had a couple of considered attacks levelled at me. When you’re fighting a general secretary election you expect to draw some criticisms, but this usually comes from within the union. This time, with Alan Johnson interviewed in Progress magazine and David Cameron delivering a pre-rehearsed line at PMQs – both focusing their pains on me – I took note. And you might be forgiven for thinking that if Alan and Dave agree there must be something to it – even I was scratching my head.
Labour MP and former shadow chancellor Alan Johnson criticised Unite general secretary Len McCluskey in an interview with Progress magazine. Photograph: Getty Images.
Without wishing to jab my finger from a rostrum or simply make further cries for greater trade union freedoms (God forbid) I am keen to engage in an exchange of views and dissuade people from the tired old image that the reactionary right-wing press would pin on trade unions and their leaders – something it seems Alan Johnson is willing to assist them in doing. So my response here is in the best tradition of democratic debate.
Alan contends that we in the trade union movement view victory as a "bourgeois concept"; well I don’t, it’s just that New Labour was, in some ways, a bourgeois victory. It was the first Labour government with a huge parliamentary majority which did nothing to touch the fundamentals of wealth and power in our society. Whilst Ed Miliband tries to build his policies around a One Nation vision his starting point is a society more unequal than it was in 1997. Alan avoided this chasm in the New Labour attainment list.
However, his recital of Labour’s many achievements in office is real, and a corrective to those who say that 13 years of Labour government delivered nothing. But if that is the truth, it is very far from being the whole truth.
For example, Alan neglects to mention that Labour left in place just about all of the draconian restrictions placed on free trade unionism by the Thatcher government. Indeed, Tony Blair boasted to a business audience that Britain’s labour laws were the most restrictive in Europe. This was an area where New Labour remained all too fond of state regulation. I cannot believe that Alan, as a former trade union leader, has no opinion on this.
Of at least equal importance is the fact that New Labour remained wedded to a neo-liberal economic strategy which has now crashed and burned. Ruthlessly prioritising the interests of the City over all other industries, and with a belief in free markets which even many Conservatives would regard as naïve, the last government got the biggest issue of all for most Labour voters very wrong.
I mention this because Alan’s political clock, as for many on the right of the party, seems to have stopped in 2008. They appear unable to honestly face up to what happened then, and the urgent need for a re-evaluation of New Labour’s economic record, as well as a different perspective for the future. On policy, Alan fails this test, bizarrely arguing that Osborne’s economic policy "is the biggest failure of a flagship policy I can remember" and yet in the same breath insisting that Labour must stick to it if it is to be credible.
To his credit, Ed Miliband is well aware of these challenges and has taken important steps towards necessary renewal, but the selective amnesia of Alan and others is of no help in restoring Labour’s credibility. The bald fact is that, despite the achievements Alan lists, Labour had lost four million votes under Tony Blair by 2005. Some of that was undoubtedly down to the Iraq war – another episode Alan seems to have forgotten – but much of it was due to working-class Labour supporters simply stopping voting.
So determined are the Blairite true believers – led by Progress – to stick their head in the sand on this point that they increasingly resemble Bertolt Brecht’s description of the East German government – "the people have lost confidence in the party, therefore we must elect a new people." The central message, which Ed Miliband is clear about, is that New Labour is over. I should also point out that I have never called for the exclusion of Progress and I am always open to engaging in democratic debate.
The root of the problem, I believe, is that Tony Blair and the Blairites never understood collectivism. Theirs was a radical individualism which could not speak to the experiences of millions of people who have always understood that progress is only attainable by working together, by collective self-empowerment, not through the accumulation of extra individual rights. Individual rights, as this coalition is proving, are easily dismantled. A skim of Blair’s memoirs underlines just how distant he always was from an understanding of unions’ culture and purpose – not so much anti-union as simply uncomprehending.
I certainly have no interest in refighting battles of the past. It is clear that the 2015 agenda cannot be that of 1945, 1974 – or 1997. And I believe trade unions have a key part to play in shaping the future, as they have done in Labour’s past. In that context, some of Alan’s points are important. Unions cannot ignore painful truths either, like our falling membership numbers. While we are still by far the largest voluntary organisations in the country, we have lost ground, largely because of industrial change and globalisation.
Those are reasons, but they cannot become excuses. Ultimately, we have to grow or wither and eventually become irrelevant. That is why Unite has built up a team of 90 dedicated organisers in the last six years, trying to spread trade unionism to new companies and workplaces, with a number of notable successes. Our 100 per cent trade unionism campaign brought in over 50,000 extra recruits last year alone. Enough? No – but there are no short-cuts and Unite, as well as other unions, are investing the resources and imagination to turn this around even in a deeply unfavourable economic climate.
Alan also argues that unions must reconnect to communities. That is an imperative in a world in which the historic connections of union, workplace and community have frayed and changed beyond recognition. Obviously Alan does not know that Unite has launched just such an initiative in the last year. In fact, if Alan was keeping up to date with modern politics he might recognise the teachings of Arnie Graf in our efforts to engage whole communities in the collective work of trade unions.
We have opened our doors to anyone not in work, and are organising thousands of new community members into special branches across the country, assisted by ten full-time community organisers. Unite is offering specialist legal and welfare assistance, as well as building a campaigning network to ensure that the voices of the most vulnerable are amplified by trade union strength. Not least of all our Unite Community Branch, fighting tirelessly across Hull to save the city's hospital. I’d happily extend an invite on their behalf for Alan to get involved.
If Alan is simply unaware of Unite’s community work, he appears actively opposed to our efforts to get more working class people into parliament as Labour MPs. Of course, no one should argue against men and women from a diversity of backgrounds serving in Labour cabinets, even though Alan’s view of Oxbridge as a "treadmill" will amuse my members working in factories, bus garages and on building sites.
The problem is we no longer have that diversity. The 1945 Labour government could accommodate both Ernie Bevin and Nye Bevan on the one hand, and Hugh Dalton and Stafford Cripps on the other. But increasingly working people are finding the path into parliament blocked by activists – many of them, of course, sincere and talented people – drawn from a very narrow social background.
That is bad for politics as a whole and especially the Labour Party. What Alan is really afraid of, I think, is the left starting to do what New Labour and Progress have long been successful at – fighting parliamentary selections to win. For too long, this has been a one-sided contest which has left us with a Parliamentary Labour Party often out of step with opinion in the party and the country.
And that, of course, is why Alan revisits the old chestnut of diluting trade union influence in the Labour party. Talk about backward looking! That debate has been around for twenty years or more and has never secured Labour a single extra vote at the polls. I have no objection to discussing constitutional change, provided it serves a real purpose and is even-handed. But Alan’s argument for cutting union votes in the Labour Party appears to rest on our falling membership. Yet his proposals would presumably expand the share of the policy vote going to the individual membership, which has fallen in proportionate terms even faster – Labour is now, alas, less than half the size it was in 1997.
Alan’s naval gazing on internal party structures would be better spent developing a decent analysis of how New Labour allowed itself to sow the seeds of destruction for our public services. PFI, free schools, foundation trusts, all now being ridden to hell on horseback by a right-wing government that wants the private sector to own and profit from public services, whilst we continue to pay for them. If the behaviour of the unions sometimes upsets a New Labour focus group, it’s because we find ourselves fighting battles to preserve an NHS and a welfare state under serious threat – with little help from Blairite retrogrades like Alan Milburn and Patricia Hewitt, now spending their political afterlife profiting from the privatisation they oversaw in government.
Unite has 2,200 members in the Hull West constituency, around ten times the number of Labour Party members. And it was in Hull this year that 500 Greencore workers were recently forced to strike following blatant disregard for employment tribunal rulings, with workers facing wage cuts of up to £2,000 a year whilst company CEO Patrick Coveney sought to persuade shareholders to pay him an enhanced €1.7m pay package so he could enjoy a millionaire’s lifestyle. These are the real-life consequences brought about when ruling elites become "relaxed" about extreme wealth, the collective strength of organised labour is quashed and a low-wage flexible job market is allowed to ensue.
Diminishing union involvement will not only fray one of Labour’s most important connections to its core electorate but increase reliance – financial and political – on the same small elite increasingly dominating political life across all major parties. And Alan knows affiliated unions in the Labour Party affiliate on the basis of the number of individuals members paying the political levy. Whilst it is easy to personify trade unions through their leaders, our influence in the party is through our millions of ordinary and diverse members.
On the issue of diversity and equality, let me say this. If Alan truly views the trade union movement as "fat, white, finger-jabbing blokes" then his view is one firmly set in the past. Our organisations are among the few in society to sincerely promote equality and fairness for all and actively oppose all forms of prejudice and discrimination on grounds of gender, ethnic origin, religion, class, sexual orientation, gender identity, age and disability. Two out of three of Unite’s assistant general secretaries are women, our national and regional equality committees enjoy equal status with industrial sector committees and our 1.5 million members reflect the wonderful diversity seen throughout our country. Could Alan say that about the PLP? Unite is proud to be a modern, progressive, representative and inclusive trade union.
Ed Miliband has set the right tone for comradely debate in the party. I believe that Labour will go into the next election united, hopefully behind a radical manifesto offering real hope to millions and no concessions to those whose greed and stupidity has pushed the country into economic calamity. That I believe is the road to victory – a victory both on polling day and in the months and years afterwards. The stale prescriptions Alan seems addicted to are the road, not to a "bourgeois victory", but to working class disappointment.
Len McCluskey is the general secretary of Unite