“Liberals Speak Up for the Poor, But Never Let the Poor Speak for Themselves”

Len McCluskey

Unite’s general secretary, Len McCluskey, told us why all working people should be in trade unions — and why we can’t rely on anyone else to speak up on our behalf.

Unite the Union general secretary Len McCluskey poses with his book Why You Should Be a Trade Unionist at the BBC Broadcasting House on January 26, 2020 in London, England. Ollie Millington / Getty

Interview by
Alex Doherty

Reading the British press, you might think that the roles in the class struggle had swapped. Rarely do the tabloids even mention trade unions without making dark references to the “union bosses” who supposedly order workers around. The word “bosses” is never applied to actual capitalists, for they are instead portrayed as job creators whose efforts are thwarted by overmighty unions. Particularly demonized is the Unite union’s leader, Len McCluskey. The man the papers call “Red Len” is not only Britain’s most prominent trade unionist but a figure often painted as “pulling the strings” behind the Labour Party.

The unions who founded Labour at the turn of the twentieth century don’t really dominate it the way that the Sun or the Daily Mail would have us believe. Certainly, trade unions do need a political voice in a land of harsh anti-strike laws. But there’s also much more to organized labor than its ties to Labour. As McCluskey reminds us in his new book, Why You Should Be A Trade Unionist, unions combine their political role with their day-to-day work of building up workplace protections, responding to ill-treatment and exploitation with solidarity and collective action.

Following the launch of his new book, the Unite general secretary spoke with Alex Doherty of Tribune Radio’s “Politics Theory Other” podcast. They discussed McCluskey’s own life as a trade unionist, the unions’ efforts to uphold a spirit of social solidarity, and the reasons why working people have to count on our own strength rather than rely on liberal politicians to save us.


AD

Why did you decide to write this book?

LM

It might have been when we were talking about our schools program, which was a plan to go into every school in the UK and meet fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds and talk to them about what a trade union is. In the course of that discussion, somebody suggested I write a book about why you should be a trade unionist. The vast majority of young people don’t really know what a trade union is. We are the largest voluntary body in the UK, and yet trade unions are effectively cut out of the curriculum.

But this book isn’t just aimed at young people. It’s aimed at both people who aren’t in unions and those who are, as a reminder of why trade unions are so important. Trade unions have always been a force for good, despite the bad press we get! So it’s important to reflect on that and make people who are in unions proud of the movement and the changes it has brought across more than 150 years.

AD

On bad press: in the book, you describe the reaction to the schools program, in particular by the Sun. Could you tell us what that reaction was?

LM

They were incandescent, saying we were trying to brainwash children and get them to join Unite. We weren’t. But unless they’re going on to further education, these fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds are the very people going out into the world of — often precarious — work, no doubt being exploited by greedy bosses. So we wanted to explain to them what trade unions are. It wasn’t brainwashing, it was just telling young people that they can come together rather than remain exposed and exploited individuals. Of course, our friends at the Sun and others felt it was the beginning of a revolution. If only . . .

AD

In the early part of the book, you also talk about what working-class life was like prior to the emergence of the unions. Could you describe that?

LM

I think we’ve seen depicted, on TV and in films, the terrible conditions that ordinary working people had to live through and the type of exploitation that was meted out by the millowners and the coal pit owners. The deprivation that existed was quite dramatic. The incredible wealth that was being created certainly wasn’t being shared with ordinary people. Friendly societies developed for working people to help each other out, and, of course, they eventually moved to become fully fledged trade unions. There was the creation of the TUC (Trades Union Congress) in 1868, and before that the Chartist movement and the Peterloo massacre. So, you can trace [the union movement] back to people saying they wanted their voice to be listened to, the first steps in representative democracy. Of course, the establishment dealt with them in a vicious way.

Our movement is littered with brave men and women who put their lives on the line, and who often lost their lives fighting for a better society. That’s really the roots of trade unionism. I wanted to paint a picture of where we came from and the enormous advances organized labor has made ever since, right up through the political arena.

The initial unions were in many ways craft based, until the New Unionism of the unskilled laborers at the turn of the last century. Politically, they relied on the Liberal Party to represent their views, but it pretty soon became apparent that, just like today, the Liberals are the other side of the Tory coin. Whenever the chips were down, the workers were let down. So that led people to say, “We need a voice in the political arena.” And that was the birth of the Labour Party.

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Thinking about liberalism today, you make the point that liberals may be genuinely and honestly concerned about deprivation and want to improve people’s lives, but they are vehemently hostile to working-class people taking matters into their own hands and doing something about it. Is that still the cleavage between liberals and socialists today?

LM

Yes. We’ve only got to turn our minds back to the election in 2010, when the Conservatives formed a coalition with the Liberal Democrats and then imposed vicious austerity on our communities. It was ordinary working people who suffered. It wasn’t needed — it was a political decision, not an economic one, and the Liberals were more than happy to shake hands with the devil, join the government, and impose those deep cuts, which hurt people — which killed people.

The Liberals don’t change. They may have values, they may want to help, they may have good intentions. But when push comes to shove, they’ll never challenge the establishment, which is what’s needed in times of crisis. That goes for the liberal newspapers as well, the Guardian and the Independent. They’re all very happy to say how disgraceful it all is and take up the cause of the poor, so long as the poor don’t take up the cause for themselves, which starts to rattle cages down here in London.

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Could you tell us about your own experience of becoming involved in trade unionism?

LM

I left college in the late 1960s, and I was very lucky — there were lots of jobs to go into. I was supposed to go to teaching college with my friend, but he won some money and decided to take a year off. He said, go on by yourself, and I said no, I’ll wait for you. I got a job down at the Liverpool docks, and it was the best thing I’ve ever done — the rest, they say, is history.

It was an incredible place to work for a young lad. I thought I knew it all — and I quickly found out that I didn’t. There were lots of struggles, and I learned a lot about solidarity, about standing shoulder to shoulder with your work colleagues and standing up against a boss who was being unjust and unfair. I spent eleven happy years down there. When I think about it now, I have a little nostalgic tear in my eye, but they were great times, and I loved every minute of it.

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On nostalgia — do you think there’s a danger that parts of the Left can be too nostalgic for that time? In hindsight, it seems better in certain respects — more jobs, more job security — but the situation for women or for black and brown people was pretty awful. And, at the same time, there were contingent factors that made this situation possible — an unprecedented capitalist boom, but also the existence of the Soviet bloc, which made capitalists feel obliged to buy the working class off to some extent. There isn’t really any going back to that specific situation, because those concrete circumstances aren’t going to be put back again.

LM

Yes, I think you’re right, there is a danger of nostalgia creeping in for people like me harking back to then. Community spirit and the idea of helping your fellow man and woman were very much part of life. The right-wing press and the Tories always talk about the dark days of the 1970s. But during that period, the Equal Pay Act for women was introduced, and the Health and Safety at Work Act, which has saved literally tens of thousands of lives.

Margaret Thatcher said there is no such thing as society, because she was breeding what I regard as an evil creed of “I’m alright, Jack” — the selfish idea that we’re only on this earth to look after ourselves and no one else. She was wrong then, and history has proven she was wrong. There is still strong community spirit, there is still a belief that people should help each other. I think that’s what we have to foster.

I go to the Durham Miners’ Gala every year — what an incredible celebration of community spirit that is. Thatcher and [right-wing ideologue] Keith Joseph may have closed the pits, but they haven’t destroyed the miners — 200,000 people come together and celebrate their history. You’re 100 percent correct: we can’t be governed by the past, and we can’t go back to those conditions. But we can still seek the good elements of our lives back then and try to promote them.

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Regarding the Thatcherite project and the neoliberal counterrevolution more broadly, do you think the logical end point is the kind of extreme deprivation and exploitation that’s associated with the early decades of industrialization — and that, absent the unions, we’d be heading toward those kind of conditions in the long term?

LM

I don’t see it necessarily as an objective. The reality is that, over forty years, neoliberalism has created a more unequal society.

Despite the wealth that has been created by working people, they don’t get the share that they deserve — or once used to get. Thirty years ago, 65 percent of GDP used to go into workers’ pockets in salaries; now it’s down to 51 percent. That drop is catastrophic for sustainable growth in the economy.

Neoliberalism has brought a society where the rich get richer and the poor effectively get poorer. In the fifth richest nation in the world, 13 million of our citizens are living below the poverty line. Something like 4 million children go to school hungry every day. We’ve got homelessness everywhere: not just people addicted to drugs or alcohol, but even people who work but have nowhere to go home to.

That’s what Thatcherism and neoliberalism has brought us. Its objective is not to turn us back into serfs, but we know this isn’t the world we should be living in. We should be living in a better Britain.

There’s a million people on zero-hour contracts, not knowing how to organize their lives. I was having a pint with a mate back up in Liverpool, and he was on coke . . . a Diet Coke, not [laughs] . . . and he kept looking at his phone. I said, “For God’s sake, we’re supposed to be out having a drink,” and he said, “I’m sorry, but I get a text to say there’s forty jobs tomorrow morning in such and such a place, and the first forty there get it.” I was shocked. I asked, “So does that mean you can’t plan anything?” Forget about planning a holiday with his family or a night out. What kind of Britain is that?

There are huge amounts of money. It’s not like everyone has to tighten their belts because we’re in a difficult situation. No, we’re not! We have massive amounts of wealth being created, and the problem is that mass of wealth is going to the corporate elite, the superrich. Only government intervention and policies can alter that. Trade unions, of course, have to fight — in a difficult climate — to make certain that workers are protected and have employment rights as well as having decent wages. But it’s tough when you’ve got a government who effectively want to restrict trade unions.

AD

Of course, in Britain, we have unusually restrictive trade union laws. A lot of people here are looking at the situation in France at the moment and asking why we can’t have that militancy here. But there are very concrete reasons for it.

LM

It’s this type of thing that gets me angry. My team tell me, “Don’t say that again.” But the truth is that when we defeated fascism at the end of World War II, it was this nation that gave Europe all the freedoms that it currently enjoys.

How is it possible that German workers, Italian workers, have got better protection than British workers? It’s an absolute outrage. When I’m campaigning and getting on my soapbox about these things, people accuse me of wanting special treatment. I don’t — I just want a level playing field, for British workers to be treated in the same way our sisters and brothers are in Europe. That’s not too much to ask.

AD

One form of criticism of the UK labor movement, coming from the Left, is that it has always been an accommodationist project that seeks to carve out a space for the working class — improved working conditions and a better welfare state. Those are obviously good things. But this doesn’t fundamentally challenge capital’s monopolization of decision-making regarding investment and economic planning, or challenge the legitimacy of ordinary people being forced to sell their labor power to survive. What’s your view of that criticism?

LM

I think that it’s a failure to understand what trade unions are. Trade unions exist primarily to represent workers in work. It’s the workers in a particular workplace who’ll determine what their priorities are. Very often, that will involve dealing with a company, maybe a decent employer, where you reach an accommodation. So, accommodation and compromise are an everyday occurrence for trade unions — that’s what we do.

I understand this criticism on the Left. But it misses the point. This all stems from the 1980s, when we had the so-called business unionism from the likes of Eric Hammond and Frank Chapple [both from the Electrical, Electronic, Telecommunications and Plumbing Union (EETPU)], right-wing unions who were more than happy to parrot whatever the government view was on the economy, and workers having to make sacrifices. There’s also a history of right-wing leaders and officials who sell workers out. That’s why I’m a great believer in lay-member democracy and workers making decisions for themselves.

But it is through the political arena that you challenge the economic orthodoxy or investment strategies. That is how trade unions like Unite try to bear influence. Including through the Labour Party — we’re its largest affiliate. We try to influence party policy to advance workers’ interests and the input that ordinary working people have within their workplaces. But for ten years, I’ve dealt with a Tory government, to try to have an influence for the better.

This criticism is, to a degree, born of frustration and a lack of full understanding of what trade unions are and where we operate, mainly in the industrial arena. We influence the political arena where we can. I’m also a great believer in engaging in community activities as well. I created Unite’s community membership: if you’re not in work, you can still join the union to have a community voice in fighting austerity.

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In terms of the division of labor between the unions and political struggle — would your view be that it may be perfectly legitimate to adopt a more radical political position that would advocate a genuinely socialist economy rather than the social-democratic one we had in the 1970s, but that you feel that’s not really the unions’ role to play?

LM

As I’ve tried to point out in my book, the unions’ job is to influence. That’s where the Labour Party comes from. Back at the beginning of the last century, victories were being achieved by the new trade unionism in the industrial arena, only for it then to be taken away from them by the politicians. That’s when people came together and said, “It’s no use just winning on the industrial front, we need to win in the political arena.”

I sometimes get accused of being too much involved in politics. But the truth is that everything you do in life is dictated by politics. All of my negotiations — I’ve been representing people now for fifty years — are dictated by the political climate. You can be negotiating with an employer who suddenly finds themselves in some difficulty because of a decision taken by the government. They bid for government work through procurement, and they don’t get it — it instead goes to a company abroad. I was engaged in fights for us to manufacture our trains. Remember, in France, 99 percent of trains are made in France; in Germany, 100 percent of trains are made in Germany. In Britain, it is foreign companies who make our trains. I was trying to defend workers at Bombardier factories in Derby and other areas; with the government, it was a political decision.

We don’t call ourselves the “trade union and labor movement” for nothing. We’re joined at the hip. That will never change, despite the fact that there’s individuals in the Labour Party who believe in neoliberalism. That struggle does take place. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown introduced a lot of good things in the New Labour years, especially in civil society. But they never challenged the power and wealth of big business. So, we lost 1 million manufacturing jobs in those thirteen years of Labour in power — and inequality grew. The trade unions are the voice of organized labor, and it is our duty to engage and influence the political arena as best we can.

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In terms of influence, one of the things you talk about in the book is the media’s hostile treatment of the unions, and you personally, in broadcast interviews, for example. December’s general election again demonstrated the enduring power of the British press to undermine the Left. Given how imbalanced the media landscape is, what do you think unions could be doing to level the playing field?

LM

It’s a question that’s been asked since Adam and Eve were around. At certain points in our existence, the trade union movement has talked about creating a newspaper. There was the News on Sunday in the 1980s. But it didn’t work. So, the truth is, no one has come up with a plan to challenge this incredibly biased media that we have. There are some good journalists out there, and they must be horrified at how their profession has been dragged into the gutter. No wonder British journalism and the British media is held in such low esteem by the rest of the world.

If you get down about it, that can be debilitating. The one thing that makes me see a light at the end of the tunnel — and maybe the light is growing bigger — is social media. The day before the 2017 election, the Daily Mail did sixteen full pages just slaughtering Jeremy Corbyn. But he defied the odds and took us within touching distance of power. The social media campaign cut through a lot of the horrible stuff that he and Labour had been subjected to.

I think that’s where trade unions have to look toward, with an approach that can speak to our members more regularly and more clearly. Young people’s use of social media is absolutely remarkable, and there’s no doubt that this is balancing a lot of the media bias. Newspaper circulation is dropping dramatically, so maybe social media is the future — I hope it is.

AD

Clearly the Left should be using social media, and, as you say, in 2017, it certainly aided Labour’s campaign. But operating through social media means relying on platforms we don’t own, through capitalist institutions — and things like Facebook and Google are not on our side. It looks like the Facebook algorithms were more effective for Labour pushing its content in 2017 than in 2019. Might now not be the time for the unions to be founding their own media institutions, or supporting alternative media? What we do have in the UK is running on a shoestring, compared to what it’s up against.

LM

Yes, I think so. I’m open to any suggestions in terms of balancing the argument and balancing the right-wing press. I would welcome that kind of discussion, probably starting to talk about significant amounts of money. That’s something that unions collectively could look at — and see if they can produce something that everybody can buy in to.

Of course, these are difficult times for trade unions. They’re going through some awkward financial realities, and a lot of unions are having to deal with membership loss and so on. In that sense, probably this type of project is not a priority. But I can certainly see the need for something of that nature.