Unite – the largest trade union in Britain, with over 1.5 million members – has positioned itself as the leadership of the labour movement against the capitalist class and its political representatives in the Coalition. The radicalised mood developing from below has begun to find an expression in the words and actions of the leadership of Unite, and in particular in the figure of Len McCluskey, the current General Secretary of Unite, who is seeking to be relected.
During the New Labour years, the leadership of the Labour Party could normally rely on their equivalents at the tops of the trade unions, including the leadership of Unite, along with its predecessor unions. Whilst smaller unions – such as the PCS, RMT and various teachers’ unions – were increasingly coming into conflict with New Labour’s right-wing policies, the old Unite leadership frequently sided with the government, effectively stymieing any attempt to fight back.
But much has changed in the past few years: the Unite General Secretary, Len McCluskey, has been lambasting the Labour leaders, praising the student movement, and calling for a general strike. In effect, Unite – the largest trade union in Britain, with over 1.5 million members – has positioned itself as the leadership of the labour movement against the capitalist class and its political representatives in the Coalition.
The radicalised mood developing from below has begun to find an expression in the words and actions of the leadership of Unite, and in particular in the figure of Len McCluskey. The election of a Tory government and the resultant onslaught has finally pushed Britain’s biggest union into struggle. Once a beast like Unite begins to move, this takes the class struggle into a new phase altogether.
A number of interesting developments are taking place within the union. In a number of sectors, trade unions have been losing members due to their failure to fight the draconian attacks workers have been facing. In order to rebuild, trade unions must win over a new generation of working-class youth. To this end, General Secretary Len McCluskey has led the campaign to attract more youth into Unite, starting with the reinvigoration of the regional youth committees across the country. At present, these structures are still relatively empty; however, as the class struggle intensifies, they could become active organs of struggle, organising young workers. Already, a number of young shop stewards are participating.
Another development in the recruitment of youth to Unite is the launching of “community membership” – the option to join Unite at a small cost, available to the unemployed, or to students, or to workers in unstable/temporary employment. Again, such structures are currently empty, but with the development of the class struggle in Britain, community Unite branches could begin to organise young workers, filling the void that exists due to the absence of a mass fighting, campaigning youth wing of the Labour Party.
Unite, however, cannot substitute for a political party of the working class, and Unite’s approach to the Labour Party is important here. Len McCluskey has become increasingly critical of the Labour leadership’s inability to stand up to the Tories and their cuts. Importantly, McCluskey and the rest of the Unite leadership have been vocal in calling for Unite to train 5000 trade union activists to “reclaim” the Labour Party under the slogan of “winning working people to the Labour Party; and winning the Labour Party to working people”.
The process of trade unionists becoming active and involved in the Labour Party will not be immediately realised, and a real change in the Labour Party will not come about simply from 5000 Unite activists. However, the demand by McCluskey for trade unions to take back control of the Labour Party as a party of the working class is a massive step forward. In the future, perhaps after a Labour general election victory, workers will move into political struggle. McCluskey’s demand will then become a point of reference for the most militant sections of the working class.
‘Snap’ general secretary election
The Unite National Executive Committee has voted for a “snap” election for the position of Unite general secretary, which, if won by McCluskey – who has indicated that he will stand – would give him a strong mandate to continue the fight against the cuts, and help to avoid having the Unite election in the same year as the general election in 2015.
Since his election as general secretary two years ago, McCluskey has shifted significantly to the left, talking about reclaiming the Labour Party, calling for a general strike and supporting the nationalisation of the banks. He has positioned himself as the leader of the left within the trade union movement. On this basis, McCluskey deserves the support of workers for his re-election, provided he uses this snap election to campaign around a fighting programme and continues raising the demands regarding the need for a 24-hour general strike, the nationalisation of the banks, and the reclaiming of the Labour Party. Such a campaign could radicalise a whole layer of workers and help to provide a lead for the entire labour movement.
We understand that Jerry Hicks is seeking nominations to stand as general secretary. While we recognize Jerry’s commitment to the cause, we feel this is a mistake. We backed Jerry in the last election, but we think things have moved on since then. Len McCluskey has shifted to the left much more than we envisaged and has opened up the union far more than others general secretaries. Many workers in Unite, including those in struggle, have welcomed this development and recognize the positive role Len McCluskey is playing. In the Sparks dispute, the Unite leadership played a positive role under the pressure of the rank and file. Workers have been consulted and involved much more than any time in the past. In addition, McCluskey has a much better political position on the Labour Party than Jerry Hicks, which Socialist Appeal has supported. That does not mean to say we have no criticisms of Len. We believe firmly in the election of fulltime officials and the need for them to be on the average of a skilled worker, which he is opposed to. We will continue to fight for our views within the union. However, we will vote for McCluskey and continue the campaign for a fighting militant union.
Fight for socialism!
Of course, these demands mean nothing if they are not put into action. Marxists wholeheartedly support the call for a 24-hour general strike, but this must be built for.
The Unite leadership should help members to take the demand for a general strike into workplaces, explaining the need for such an action to bring down the Tory government. Branches, including the new “community branches”, must organise to send workers into the Labour Party at all levels and fight for socialist policies. And to the demand for the nationalisation of the banks, we should add that the banks should be nationalised under workers’ control and management, as part of a national plan of production and investment. Only then, can we offer an alternative to the misery of cuts and austerity. Unite must be at the forefront of this fight.