Len McCluskey is on a collision course with the Labour leadership. On Tuesday night the general secretary of the UK’s largest trade union, Unite, kicked off the 2013 Ralph Miliband lecture series at the LSE. It was an event laced with irony: Ralph, the Marxist sociologist who died in 1994, was the father of Ed Miliband. McCluskey, whose union is Labour’s biggest donor, has been a thorn in the side of the Labour leader, precisely because he reflects the deeper, redder socialism of Ed’s father. As “Red Len” observed: “the father spent his life trying to convince our movement that there was no possibility of a parliamentary road to socialism, while his sons have been loyally putting theory into practice, and proving Ralph right.”
Speaking in a soft Liverpudlian accent, McCluskey argued for a working-class politics for the 21st century. The welfare state, he said, is under threat because its protectors—the trade union movement and a politically active working class—have been weakened by a neoliberal offensive which began in the late 1970s and which continues to this day. In McCluskey’s view there has been a deliberate strategy by elites to crowd the working class out of politics, either by denying they exist (“We’re all middle class now,” as John Prescott famously asserted) or by demonising them as “feckless, criminalised, and ignorant.”
McCluskey is not the naïve nostalgic of right-wing myth, obsessed by the dream of reliving the golden days of his youth, when he organised clerical workers in the Liverpool docklands. He understands that the deindustrialisation of the economy since the 1980s has changed Britain forever. But he is adamant that there is still a working class, and his mission is to reconnect unions with the wider community and to reach out beyond the unions’ traditional constituency to “the unemployed, the disabled, carers, the elderly, [and] the voluntary and charity sector.” Unite is training activists to work as community organisers, and also has plans to create a new credit union to provide an alternative to usurious payday loan companies.
Nevertheless, working-class “consciousness raising”—persuading people they represent a class with common interests, and that the labour movement has the answers to their problems—is as old as socialism itself, and has an extremely mixed record. Whether McCluskey is the right man to rebuild a working-class mass movement is also questionable. In the past he has demonstrated a tin ear when it comes to public sentiment—most notably last February when he threatened to disrupt the Olympics to protest against austerity.
Perhaps the most significant thing to come out of Tuesday’s speech however, and certainly the most troubling for Ed Miliband, was evidence that the old divisions within Labour are still alive and kicking. While Miliband has tried to bury the tension between “Old” and “New” Labour with the reassuringly consensual “one nation” slogan, questions from the floor (which were almost exclusively from Unite members) railed against “the right-wing parliamentary Labour party” and Progress, the Blairite pressure group which some union leaders (though not McCluskey) want banned from the party.
When asked what his three “must dos” for a Labour government in 2015 would be, “trade union freedoms, trade union freedoms, trade union freedoms,” was McCluskey’s defiant answer. He also repeated his view that a “watered down version of austerity” was not an option for Labour. But Ed Miliband is very unlikely to relax trade union regulation (imagine the headlines: “Union paymasters get their pound of flesh”), and the fiscal environment in 2015 will almost certainly preclude him from doing anything other than continuing with deep public spending cuts. In other words, the “red line areas” set out by Labour’s biggest financial donor are things which the party’s leadership are not in a position to deliver. As Fred Astaire crooned, “there may be trouble ahead.”