Our party is a cause or it is nothing at all

March 6, 2013 3:42 pm

Luke Akehurst was absolutely correct to underscore the importance of unity against our collective enemy – the Tory Party and this Coalition government. He also has a point when he argues against the pigeon-holing of comrades within the Labour Party into simplistic factions, such as the Blairites or the Brownites. However, this is not to say there is not a genuine debate to be had over the future direction of the Labour Party.

In healthy democratic debate the use of language is very important. Therefore, while the title of  the New Statesman article which referenced ‘Blairite zombies’ may have stretched the limits of this comradely debate, I’m sure Luke is media savvy enough to know that headlines, in the main, are the preserve of the sub-editor – as was the case this time.  I felt that the headline was crass and in a way undermined the essence of comradely debate. The article’s content was actually a considered case of how the unions are changing in the 21st Century and their future integral role within the Labour Party.

Luke’s naivety cannot stretch so far as to presume there is not a genuine struggle for the future direction of the Labour Party.  The type of policy and the programme for government that Ed Miliband presents to the electorate in 2015 will determine whether he wins or loses that election. Let’s be clear, Ed Miliband has a range of voices seeking to influence the direction in which he takes the Party. Progress openly pressures Miliband to revamp the failed neo-liberal policies of the last decade – even publishing its own manifesto ‘The Purple Papers’.

This stance is in stark contrast to the vision presented by trade unions like Unite, for instance calling for investment-led economic growth and an end to the low-growth low-wage economy through greater trade union freedoms and tighter controls over the market.

It is also not correct for Luke to assert that ‘the vast majority of ordinary party members and indeed trade unionists resist efforts to categorise them by faction’ or that ‘most don’t see themselves as left or right but as loyalists to Labour’. Those who are, in this sense, blindly loyal to the Labour Party and its successive leaders are usually those blinded by their own political ambition. Ordinary Labour Party members or trade union members all too often feel that the party of working people has moved too far away from their values. Indeed too many have left our ranks for just this reason. Those that want the Labour Party to embrace the failed neo-liberal agenda of the post-1970s simply want to morph it into something it was never supposed to be.

Luke does correctly identify Alan Johnson’s motives for attacking me using comments attributed to me from last September calling for ‘Blairite cuckoos’ to be kicked out the nest. Let’s not forget that these comments were made when Ed Miliband was still regularly being briefed against by colleagues identifiably on the right of the party. Johnson’s attack comes amid growing trade union activity within the Labour Party at constituency level and as part of the selection processes for prospective Labour Party candidates. The free-run Progress and the right has had winning selections has for the first time come under threat and Alan Johnson is clearly getting nervous.

Unite’s position on working class candidates is also clearer than its opponents like to pretend. It is right that the ruling body of the Labour Party voted to recognise working class representation as a Labour Party ideal. Unite shares this ambition. However, the political strategy of people  our union is to have more MPs that share core trade union values and will support policies that will benefit Unite’s 1.5 million members – irrespective of an individual’s class.

It is true that  I am  in the middle of a General Secretary election but Luke’s assertion that any outburst against elements in the Labour Party will boost support are rather far-fetched.  Since taking office in 2010, I have worked with our talented team of staff and officers to bring together two of the UK’s largest trade unions and turned Unite, with 1.5 million members, into a unified and cohesive organisation.  By always backing industrial decisions of rank and file members, support comes from across every section and sector of Unite. The lack of a ‘candidate of the right’ in the General Secretary election demonstrates this unity.

Luke also identifies elements of Unite policy that he disagrees with and seemingly attributes these to the General Secretary when Unite policy is determined unambiguously by its executive and lay members. This is the case on foreign policy and on Unite’s opposition to the cuts.  I have spoken in strong terms against Coalition cuts , giving support to protests, civil disobedience and resistance against austerity, but I have not called for illegal budgets to be set by councils or for people to break the law.

Unite opposed the freeze on public sector pay  – just as we reject austerity -  because it hurts ordinary people’s living standards and is wrong for the economy and our nation. The union rightly calls on its Labour councillors to do the maximum possible to oppose the cuts by whatever means possible. Unite wants councils, communities, trade unions and the Labour Party to work together to build a movement to fight austerity. Many will agree with the frustration that, too often, Labour politicians get lost in a managerial approach, applauding themselves for their efficiency and rationalisation as they letting the Tories off the hook.

Labour Party activists from all sides of the political spectrum  would do well to show more humility and respect to our comrades in the trade union movement. They connect us to millions of our voters.  They ground us in workplaces and communities.  They remind Labour that the collective is at the heart of our cause, because, as Harold Wilson once observed, our party is a cause or it is nothing at all.

Len McCluskey is General Secretary of Unite

  • Raging Leftie

    Very good article, Len. I am one of those people you describe as feeling Labour has moved too far from its core values and principles. It has lost the essential ‘labouriness’which made it Labour – a party one could be proud of voting for.

    • Dave Postles

      Me too.

      • rekrab

        And me!

  • http://twitter.com/robertsjonathan Jonathan Roberts

    Len, I’m a member of Progress and I’m a member of Unite. I don’t want to feel like I have to choose between the two. Trade Unionism embedded within communities is vital – I have seen first hand how they help individuals overcome workplace difficulty and been amazed at how good local officers are. I also work with Unions in my day job and usually find them constructive and pragmatic. But the fact that union membership has been on the steady decline is not down to ‘Tory anti-Union laws’ as often claimed, but I often feel down to the behaviour of Union leaders at a national level, especially ones who call for civil disobedience, oppose policies in detail but only support ideas in generalities, and are a little too willing to go on strike.

    I too have concerns that Labour’s funding comes so heavily from the Unions that Labour will soon be nothing more than the political office of Union General Secretaries. It’s not healthy. Progress helps put ideas in, but has nothing like the influence Unions do on selection processes (you simply can’t get selected without winning over Union branches but there is no organised Progress ‘faction’ at a local level – so you needn’t worry about that side of things.)

    I think we can be on ordinary people’s side whilst at the same time recognising that the public as a whole simply do not want the kind of socialism Union leaders tend to offer (see election results for evidence). I hope one day we can move on from battles of silly claims over ideological purity, and start coming up with costed, effective and proven ways of helping people backed up by balanced evidence, so that we can build a stronger country for everyone who lives in it.

    • rekrab

      You say union membership is in decline, as though the public want it that way? since the 1980′s the privatised programme has been the cause.

    • Dave Postles

      ‘ I don’t want to feel like I have to choose between the two.’
      Reading your comment, it appears that you have already taken that decision. It seems to me that the Labour Party accepts the funding from the unions, but otherwise ignores them. I wonder why the unions remain affiliated to the Labour Party. I’m a community member of Unite and remain a member of the Cooperative Party, but I will not rejoin the Labour Party whilst it vacillates about the most serious issues affecting ordinary people. I have more faith in the extra-Parliamentary opposition than in the Labour Party.

      Len: how are we coming along with union-based credit unions? We need them asap, despite the OFT action. Are we marching again this year? I hope so.

    • new puritan

      Your line about ‘civil disobedience’ might be a not so thinly-veiled dig at McCluskey, but it doesn’t tally with the facts. Unite actually increased its membership by 50,000 in 2012:

      http://www.unitetheunion.org/news/uniteboostedmembershipby50000in2012/

      I’m also pretty certain the RMT’s membership has risen under Bob Crow. That suggests to me that unions which are prepared to take decisive action on behalf of their members (including – shock horror! – strike action) are actually more likely to attract newcomers.

    • Peter Talbot

      “there is no organised Progress ‘faction’ at a local level” – pull the other one, Jonathan!

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ashleigh-Marsh/100000525203389 Ashleigh Marsh

      WSAYO? When I was a child I learned about the history of the labour movement, the gains we fought for in health, housing and education. How did we win these? It was by sticking up for what we believe in, not by speculating on what other people think is popular, or by trying to ‘build a stronger country’. “…there is no organised Progress ‘faction’ at a local level…” – says it all. Civil disobedience is not some kind of invention of union leaders, it may be the only option for people who can’t afford to pay the bedroom tax, or need local hospitals to stay open. This is the real world.

  • John Reid

    Ed miliband had been briefed about by the right of the party, unless you mean a few journalists like dan hodges and Jonathon Rentoul , have you any proof of this after all progress members Ellie reeves and Luke ake hurst backed him

  • jaime taurosangastre candelas

    Those that want the Labour Party to embrace the failed neo-liberal agenda of the post-1970s simply want to morph it into something it was never supposed to be.

    I may be incorrect to draw such an inference, but you appear to indicate that a return to 1970s (or earlier) Labour policies is what you would support. I wonder how popular those policies would be in the modern Britain? I think the world has changed considerably since the 1970s, and also believe – although I concede that you may not – that despite failures, it is considerably better for the ordinary person than living under the policies of a 1970s pre-neo-liberal agenda would be. But we may differ in our perceptions.

  • http://twitter.com/UniteRegair unite regair

    as a branch we feel that Labour has moved right and has left a disaffected group of socialists adrift and confused as to what the party identity really should be. Unite have a chance to influence the political decisions that govern and guide the party lets hope that we succeed before labour becomes the fourth party behind LIBDEM TORY AND UKIP…

  • John Boodle

    I’m looking forward to seeing Ken Loach’s “Spirit of 45″, not just as a piece of historical wonderment but to question how on earth could such a spirit be rekindled amongst an electorate 70 years on by a Labour Party, which many have pointed out, has distanced itself from the very people it claims to represent (the clue is in the name) and the people who founded that party. How does such a British Labour Party free itself from the shackles of what appears to be an all pervading neo-liberal agenda in a “globalised” world? The electorate need to be presented with hope, and a clear vision for the future based upon those core values and principles referred to by others.

  • http://www.facebook.com/renie.anjeh1 Renie Anjeh

    “Progress openly pressures Miliband to revamp the failed neo-liberal policies of the last decade – even publishing its own manifesto ‘The Purple Papers’.”
    Yes, that’s right, Mr McCluskey. Universal childcare, universal social care, contributory welfare, a jobs guarantee, full employment, investment in preventative health services or wealth taxes are all the neoliberal policies of the last decade. Either Len McCluskey is having a laugh or he is to the extreme left of Hugo Chavez. It’s nice to know that Len McCluskey has chosen his own self-interest before the Labour Party. Oh and by the way, Ed Miliband is after all a former vice-chair of Progress so it is no surprise that he is not listening to the siren calls of Len McCluskey and paying more attention to genuine progressives who want a Labour government. :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/renie.anjeh1 Renie Anjeh

    The Purple Papers are neoliberal? Yeah right.

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