McCluskey's sleight of hand is cover for Miliband
Go and read Len McCluskey’s lecture at the London School of Economics. It was tremendous and a breath of fresh air, I was told. So I did. Was I disappointed? Not really, because my expectations were not all that high to start with.
McCluskey has always talked a good talk, telling committed socialists what they want to hear. The rhetoric, the references to Marx, are all well and good. In practice, however, his leadership of Britain’s biggest union Unite is never as half as committed.
Unite has blocked any suggestion, for example, that Labour councillors should refuse to implement Tory-driven budget cuts. The union leadership short-circuited resistance to ConDem pension attacks and eventually signed on the dotted line.
Ultimately, as we will see, McCluskey’s hopes rest with Ed Miliband. In that he is not alone, of course. There are plenty on the left who believe Miliband is some kind of “open book” who will somehow represent the interests of working people if he becomes prime minister.
McCluskey’s address, “A working class politics for the 21st century”, was delivered as the Ralph Miliband lecture at the LSE. The father of Ed and David was regarded as a Marxist and wrote critiques of Labour and reformism in books like Parliamentary socialism.
The irony was not lost on McCluskey who noted:
Indeed, it is sometimes said that there is a common thread linking the generations of Milibands – 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!
McCluskey gave a swift overview of the historic role played by the organised working class through its trade unions in fighting for democracy, creating a welfare state and establishing a political voice by “influencing government through the Labour Party”.
When it came to contemporary history, he was on much shakier ground. The weakening of the trade unions was part of the “neo-liberal offensive” which began in the mid-1970s, he claimed. While this is true, McCluskey’s view that this was “not mainly about economics” is plainly wrong. The mid-1970s signalled the end of consensus politics because the post-war international economic framework collapsed in a heap.
The offensive against the working class was driven by this crisis. It was not, as he suggests, that the ruling élites woke up one day and decided that the trade unions had become too strong. While McCluskey frequently uses the term capitalism in his lecture, the concept of globalisation is totally absent.
Yet it is the emergence of a globalised capitalism, with its tremendous hold over nation states, governments and international institutions, that is the real game changer. McCluskey’s view that the offensive was “about restoring what our rulers regarded as the proper social hierarchy, including getting the working-class out of politics”, is to do with the consequences rather than the cause.
In his lecture, McCluskey spelled out innovative ways that the unions could rebuild their membership and the role they could play in uniting communities against austerity. He praised Ukuncut and other grass roots movements that have exposed inequality and tax avoidance. McCluskey noted the growing anger at local level against the cuts.
But what, you may ask, is this all for. McCluskey told his audience: “So my message to capitalism – if you can send a message to a system – is this: Mend your ways or risk mounting social breakdown and disorder.”
And who will do the “mending”? For McCluskey, “Labour is the natural, historic, vehicle” for the working class. And here’s the ultimate sleight of hand. McCluskey said that if “in the future” [emphasis added] there is any return to the “discredited recipes of Blairism”, then the Labour Party will be over for him and others.
The fact is that all the evidence says this is already the case. Miliband’s espousal of pseudo-Tory “One Nation” politics, his support for a pubic sector wage freeze, his opposition to strikes, the Labour leader’s commitment to reducing the deficit through cuts, the embracing of “responsible capitalism”, the backing for the end of universal benefits etc etc – tells its own story.
It was one that McCluskey had nothing to say about.
22 January 2013