Last night, there were two major discussions of Labour’s future policy and strategy. The first, held in Westminster, featured Labour policy chief Jon Cruddas, Ed Miliband’s “Blue Labour” guru Maurice Glasman and had David Miliband sitting in the audience. The debate ranged widely over the question of how to build ‘One Nation’.
The second event was an LSE lecture by Len McCluskey, General Secretary of Unite, Britain’s largest trade union, on the political strategy for trade unionism. Despite Unite’s size and influence, there were few big names from the Labour party in attendance and the speech has achieved little media coverage, not even making any of the endless lists of top British political stories.
Indeed, the only references to the speech I found on Google news were articles for Iran’s Press TV and the Belfast Telegraph. Perhaps this demonstrates Len McCluskey’s point about the exclusion of the representatives of the working class from British political life. The Trade Unions are still being treated like the “Mad Aunt in the Attic”.
Yet if I had to choose which discussion was likely to have a lasting practical impact on the direction of the Labour party over the next two years I’d make the Union leader’s speech the favourite. Why?
First is the obvious structural influence of Len McCluskey personally1 and the leading Trade Unions generally on Labour policy and strategy. Half of votes at conference and a sizeable proportion of the National Policy Forum and the NEC are dedicated to Trade Union representatives, and while those representatives are very far from a monolithic bloc, when a common agenda is shared, they represent a powerful voice inside the party.
However, this organisational presence doesn’t guarantee political dominance, whatever the Conservative party would have us believe. The NPF, NEC and Conference have been around for a long time but the Union complaint about New Labour was not even that all their demands were ignored, but that they often did not even feel part of the conversation2
This is why McCluskey’s speech deserves proper attention. New Labour existed and survived for thirteen years, and did so at least in part because Unionism offered no coherent alternative analysis or political strategy. There were a few on the extreme left who sought a return to Bennite struggle, but it felt faintly ludicrous, I suspect even to those involved.
Now this has changed. New Labour is dead, and in the subsequent debate about what replaces it Len McCluskey wishes to put the political power of Trade Unionism into the service of a specific political idea, and makes a clear, cogent and direct case for doing so.
I dissent from this analysis, and disagree about the conclusions, but it is time, well past time, to take this analysis seriously and consider where it might take Labour. This is not least because on an intellectual and stylistic level, McCluskey’s speech is clearer, more provocative and richer in content than the vast majority of speeches, especially the airy asserting of pious good intentions that are so fashionable now, and deserves attention and great thanks for that alone.
Th argument begins with a quote from Miliband, (Ralph, not Ed):
““All concepts of politics, of whatever kind, are about conflict──how to contain it, or abolish it.”
This provides the core of McCluskey’s argument. First that conflict is inherent to the relationship between the workers and the powerful, second that the unions must be the marshals, quartermasters and strategists for one side of this conflict, and that third, it is vital to the working class that this work bot be hobbled and prevented.
From this flows the view that the defeats of the Trade Union movement experienced since the 1970s were primarily“a consequence of the deliberate drive to destroy the trade union movement and working-class politics which the elite has embarked on over the last generation or so”
In other words, the Neo-Liberals waged war upon the workers, won the field, and so unionism declined, and with it, the status of workers.
In order to reverse this process, the essential first step is to extend the organisational power of the union to win the worker’s battles.
“if we are on a march towards “one nation” and ultimately “one world”, it is a road that leads through struggle and conflict.
We cannot create common interests across a society that is now more unequal than for generations simply by wishing for it.”
This is, I think, an acute insight. The great strength and danger for the “One Nation” project is that it ends up merely being a mechanism used to avoid conflict, first in the Labour party (by seeking to be so inclusive that both Len and I feel obliged to make favourable references to the slogan, to avoid seeming disloyalty) and then nationally, as it demands responsibilities from all, offering rights in return. This could make it either a hegemonic political projects, or a vast balloon of inflated rhetoric.
As McCluskey notes, “One Nation’s” political history, whether Disraelian, interwar, postwar, or New Labour could be used to ameliorate or manage the process of conflict.3 Depending on your perspective, this is either a sell-out of the interests of the Working Class, or a cover under which the working class can be distracted from claiming their full rights. Either way, to be given a more definite content, One Nation requires some conflict.
Where does this analysis of the past take us for the future of unionism?
“We have to say that we speak for the working class, that the working class speaks for a better world for all, and we have to organise and fight on that basis – not as a special interest or as a lobbying group, but as the motivators of the only real alternative to the crisis of capitalism and the multiple failures of the present ruling elite.”
First, it leads to the conclusion that conflict is essential for future social progress.
Whether through “Occupy” style direct action, strikes, mass demonstration, the presence of conflict is a sign that the right battles are being fought. Logically, for the Trade Union movement, this should require much greater organisation and strike action freedom.
Second, note that this analysis is primarily political, not industrial.
It sees the events of the last thirty years as the profound result of a Neo-Liberal assault on the institutions of the working class. The response must therefore be primarily a political response.
There is little analysis in the speech of other possible factors for the decline of British Trade Unionism over the last three decades, whether it is the shifting of heavy industry overseas, the role of new technologies in de-industrialisation, or unionism’s failure to offer much to the emergent routine white-collar classes of the private sector.4
This feels like a story of unionism that misses out the workplace.
If what is happening is a “Neo-Liberal” assault on the working classes, what explains the strange absence of conflict in the private sector? Today, Private sector strike rates are very, very, low, This is true even when comparing within the ‘neo-liberal’ era. 5.
In 2012, it looks as if we will have one of the smallest numbers of days lost to strikes in the Private Sector since ONS started counting.
In the remaining unionised private sector workplaces, the story of British Unionism has been more about constructive engagement with employers than conflict.
Now, the obvious response to this is that the hollowing out of the Union movement has led to an unexpressed conflict, one that is being repressed by a lack of industrial representation.
Yet, there seems little sign yet of an upsurge in demands for union organisation which might signal such a path. Union Density in the Private sector is falling, and the rate of growth of private sector union membership is lagging the overall growth in private sector employees.
On a critical reading of the Union left, if conflict is not happening in workplaces – if private sector workers are not voting for conflict in union ballots, in demands for membership, or spontaneous organisation, it becomes vital to locate it elsewhere, whether the public sector, non-industrial protest or politics.
Is this perhaps part of why protest and conflict in the political sphere matters to the new Union left?
I feel this drives McCluskey’s picture of non-labour movement radicalism.
Stuggles like Occupy or Tax protests against capitalism offer a sign of the radicalism that is not demonstrated in the union members own actions, at least in the Private sector. It’s like my reaction whenever I read of calls to “Unite the Resistance” – what resistance is there to unite that isn’t already united?
This underlies the way in which Len McCluskey talks about expanding Union membership. It becomes about gathering together those left abandoned and workless by neo-liberalism, not an offer of something to those who may be surviving within it.
So the speech’s list of those who need Unionism includes “unemployed, the disabled, carers, the elderly, the voluntary and charity sector”. Those who work in the private sector but are not unionised are a tougher target, thanks to “exploitative and anti-union companies”. ((To be fair though, this is a speech about protest, not industrial organising, and I’m sure that Unite regularly talks about the importance of growing membership through organisation))
This strikes me as a lop-sided picture of Britain today.
First, I suspect that the reserve army of Labour Unite wishes to enlist will prove rather different to the one he sketches. Second, I think the growing private sector non-unionised work force is less about exploitative companies and more about the changing nature of employment6.
Just as the Tories are wrong to characterise Britain today as a land with hundreds of thousands of scroungers, it’s not the case that the unemployed are a stable, disenfranchised mass. Instead, especially for women, there is a steady cycling in and out of a complex web of work, part-time work and family obligations.
Trade Unionism’s current membership model is reliant on a stable labour force in a single location or community, with equally stable, and thus manageable, interests and demands. Unite’s response to the decline of this model, The community membership scheme, itself seems an attempt to graft this model on a very different Labour market.
For example, What happens to the Community member when she finds work for 20 hours a week? What support will her union offer for her? Well, according to the Membership guide “they will either be transferred onto full Unite Membership or be advised to join the appropriate union if the work is not in an area covered by Unite”7 I’m not sure how attractive this will prove.
Here’s my view – Len McCluskey’s critique of Neo-Liberalism as the driving force of Union and Working class decline leaves out a great deal of what is actually happening in workplaces, and how “Neo-Liberals” like Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and, yes, Gordon Brown, sought to ameliorate, anticipate and make the most of those changes.
Further, it leads to constantly locating flaws elsewhere, which requires surprisingly little analysis of Unionism’s own weaknesses.8
But my dissent from Len McCluskey’s analysis is far less important than the fact the left analysis exists.
Followed through to his logical conclusion, then the argument that the delivery of “One Nation” means conflict ahead. For example, it means that McCluskey should be pushing the Labour party for a radical expansion of Trade union organisational rights.
Further, rather than a “One Nation” position balancing of “Rights and responsibilities” across all of society, McCluskey’s position entails an expansion of the rights of the working and non-working classes at the clear and direct expense of the privileged few.
((At its smallest level, this requires the presence of more “working Class” voices in Labour politics. Yet again, “working class” is likely to be a political, not a demographic, or employment statement. I grew up in a housing association home with a single mother who moved between benefits and part-time work. I also went to Oxford and write words for a living. Am I more or less working class than Len himself, or say, Owen Jones? What about Hazel Blears, or Phil Wilson? ))
Politically, McCluskey would argue that this would motivate and energise those who grew dissatisfied with Labour. I’ve set out why I think this analysis is wrong electorally elsewhere, so won’t repeat it.
What matters next is how willing Len McCluskey and those around him are to generate the conflict of which he speaks, and when he chooses to pursue it.
If they wish, Unite could seek to put the Labour leadership to the test before the General Election, with a clear set of policy demands that would almost certainly be strongly resisted. If they succeeded with a large part of this agenda, this would give Labour a clear, and more controverisial political identity.
On the other hand, Unite might choose to wait, judging that the election of a Labour government is a needed first step to making real change and that conflict now would merely mean an inability to pursue more important conflicts later.
The Labour leadership will seek to persuade Unite, the GMB and others to broadly accept the latter position, hoping to return to a more generous version of the Warwick I and II transactional agreements.
However, reading Len’s speech I wonder if he would regard such an approach as a “return to Blairism”, and thus entirely unsatisfactory and vague.
If he did, the theoreticians and philosophers at that other intellectual seminar, the one in a Westminster committee room graced by so many ‘big thinkers’, might find they are in for something of a surprise.------------------------------------------------------------------------------
- I had trouble deciding how to address Len McCluskey. we’ve never met, but have exchanged tweets and he’s said he looks forward to reading my response to his speech. So calling him Mr McCluskey seems snitty, but Len seems over-familiar. So I’ve sort of switched between Len McCluskey when referring to him personally, and Mcluskey’s when referring to the speech. Anyway Len, if you’re reading, this is an attempt to explain how I’ve used your name! [↩]
- I’d argue this is a misreading of how New Labour and the Unions operated: So a diversion:
New Labour ministers tended to approach policy-making with Trade Unions as something that could be positively managed within specific bounds. These boundaries were roughly: No Return to pre-80s union legislation, no significant re-nationalisation, pressure on public service reform, and preservation of a basic pro-business and free movement of goods policies, but along with that, more union rights, though limited, a fairly radical range of workplace legislation on specific issues. This meant that while New Labour was rarely regarded with affection by Trade Union leaders, they could at the same time score significant policy victories.
As late as 2005 TUC Conference speeches, while sharply critical of Labour’s lack of ambition, were also larded with specific Trade Union policy achievements. After eighteen years of unrelenting defeat, this was perhaps more significant than it seems in retrospect and formed a large part of the reason why New Labour and the Trade Unions developed a modus vivendi. The fact that Labour’s policy jargon included regular references to ‘The Warwick Agreement” and “Warwick Two” were symbolic of this transactional, constantly re-negotiated relationship. Union leaders needed to swat New Labour, but they also felt that they needed New Labour to make swatting the government worthwhile.
That tolerance began to die towards the end of Tony Blair’s administration, and declined sharply under Gordon Brown, perhaps because for many years Trade Union leaders had regarded Brown as “The acceptable face of New Labour” and had higher expectations of a Brown-Led Labour government than of Blair, When these expectations went largely unfulfilled, discontent was muted by a combination of a lack of a credible left alternative, the economic crisis, which relegated political concerns to a lower priority, and finally the fear of a Conservative government [↩]
- Though Disraeli did not talk of “One Nation” – the first use of the phrase was, I think, Baldwin‘s [↩]
- The only reference I saw to these cast this too as a part of a deliberate assault on the Working classes, a “neo-liberal experiment that sent ‘old’ industries elsewhere in the world”. [↩]
- Nor can this be explained as purely a result of legislative weakness limiting Trade Union action. Public Sector strikes have increased [↩]
- To put it another way, I don’t quite see why capitalists are today more rapacious and anti-Union than they used to be back when very fat men watered the workers beer [↩]
- For a part-time worker, this will be around £70 a year, or c£140 if working over 21 hours a week. [↩]
- To be needlessly provocative, since conflict is good: It is like a general having suffered a series of reverses and seeing a large part of his troops have deserted, blaming only the evil intent of the enemy, and never wondering if he chose to fight on the right ground, or even whether fighting was the right decision to begin with [↩]