As a teenager, incensed by the half-wages paid to young workers on the Liverpool docks, Len McCluskey organised a successful strike among his fellow clerical workers to remedy the inequity. He was soon elected as shop steward, cancelling his place at teacher training college, and rose through the ranks to become one of the most influential labour leaders in recent times as general secretary of Unite.
In this important autobiography, McCluskey describes himself as a class fighter, shaped by his time on the waterfront and his experiences of class and community solidarity in Liverpool. In a clear, conversational style, he describes an idyllic working-class childhood in Kirkdale, warmly cared for by his parents and older sister. Through their stories he learned of the poverty that had scarred the city and the religious divisions that had seen Tory MPs returned regularly until 1964.
The transformation of Liverpool into a socialist stronghold is a sub-plot of the book, attributed here to Celtic influences and the combination of a combative approach to politics and trade unionism, integrated with the popular culture of music and football.
Len and Labour
McCluskey’s account of his ten years as leader of Unite is dominated by unusually detailed accounts of the three leaders of the Labour Party he worked alongside, giving them mostly good advice (often unheeded). He was quietly contemptuous of Labour’s failing leadership in Scotland and amazed at Ed Miliband’s apparent indifference (‘I’m keeping out of it’) to its consequences for the Labour vote. When Miliband called in the police to investigate groundless accusations of criminal activity by Unite in the Falkirk by-election, their relationship broke down.
McCluskey bridled at the Blairite idea of Labour being made attractive to people who ‘aspired to shop at Waitrose’, instead favouring attracting people with a commitment to trust, community, collectivist thought and above all solidarity – qualities thin on the ground on the Labour benches in Westminster.
This is why, to the astonishment of the commentariat, he welcomed Miliband’s scheme for one member, one vote as a new way of electing the party leader. Membership soared and a rank outsider, the left-wing socialist Jeremy Corbyn, was elected. He was provided with enormous support by the Unite leader, without which his project would certainly have foundered.
All this seemed to have been justified in 2017 when a popular surge gave enormous support and near victory to Corbyn. For McCluskey, this election should stand as a guiding light for future politics. Labour’s defeat in 2019 is laid at the door of Brexit and the poor and indecisive collective leadership that followed. Shrewdly, McCluskey urged Corbyn to allow a free vote on Theresa May’s EU deal, allowing it to pass and put the Brexit genie back in the bottle. He was ignored, and disaster followed.
‘A force of nature’
Politics, for McCluskey, was like a game of chess. In contrast, trade unions face class relations that are more obvious and the games subsequently more direct. This is made clear in his account of dealing with British Airways and in an exciting final chapter, which calls on unions to be ‘combative, visible and inventive’.
These were watchwords for his tenure, which included the establishment of a substantial strike fund, which proved very effective in bolstering a commitment to workers on strike and ensuring that poverty would not drive members back to work. This was combined with an emphasis on organising and the use of multiple forms of ‘leverage’ to put pressure on bad employers. Unite Community was set up to provide support and organisation for people out of work, building solidarity and mobilising beyond the workplace. Taken together these represent a formidable achievement and major source of working-class power.
In his first election campaign McCluskey learned that many of his members favoured disaffiliation from Labour, but he chose to stay and fight. Now he has provided his successor, Sharon Graham – the first woman to lead the union, and ‘a force of nature’ – with the armoury to create a new and perhaps different kind of labour movement.
This article first appeared in issue #234, ‘Technocapitalism’. Subscribe today to get your copy and support fearless, independent media.