Len McCluskey’s interview in the Sunday Times will no doubt cause furore on the Labour right. It is the kind of interview only a self-confident and assertive union leader can give and its a sign of Unite’s growing assertiveness within the Labour Party. The significance for me was not so-much in the headline-grabbing disagreements over public sector pay nor the somewhat rhetorically over-blown implication that Mr McCluskey would want to start ‘purging’ Blairites (I don’t agree with ideological purges, as every regular reader will know) but in the strategic nuggets. Its campaign to bring Unite members into the Party and its role in the formation of Class were what really caught my eye because they show clear evidence of long-term, strategic deep-thinking going on right at the top of the union.
In terms of bringing union members into the Party, who can possibly object? More members means more activists and more revenue raised and a greater impact on the wider electorate. The fact that these members would seek to influence the people around them in a certain direction is surely a given and ultimately there is nothing wrong with anybody seeking to win a democratic majority for their arguments through persuasion. Ditto when it comes to McCluskey’s pledge to only support Labour candidates who are in broad agreement with the aims and objectives of the union and who come from manual labour backgrounds. Who, after-all could reasonably expect the case to be anything else? Selecting candidates from a more diverse pool of backgrounds also strengthens our ailing democracy as well, not just the Labour Party. Class represents a concerted attempt by Unite to be involved not just in lobbying, by wielding the financial stick, but to seek to persuade and develop a coherent policy agenda which is in line with its long-term aspirations.
However, in presentational terms, the interview also highlighted an area where the unions consistently fall short of the mark. McCluskey seems perfectly happy to give the Times the story it wants, sinister plot by the unions to engineer a putsch. Rather than frame the debate in a different, more subtle and democratic, fashion he all too often seems happy to play into the narrative the paper wants;
“Asked whether the strategy could be viewed as an attempt to take over the Party, McCluskey replied; Of course we are trying to influence the Party again.”
He should have challenged the very premise of the question, that bringing activists into the Party was some kind of attempted hostile take-over. It isn’t, but McCluskey never challenges the implied assertion that it is, in fact, he seems to happily concur with the questioner. In letting things like this lapse, he gives the impression of being more clunking fist than sincere champion of his members (the job he was elected to do). This is a shame and it is an area where Unite, and indeed the trade unions in general, need to catch-up with the political classes, who long ago relised the importance of getting the presentation, framing and narrative right. We are at a point of record disengagement with the political process and most of those people that do engage do not bother to investigate the marco-level nuances of policy of what people are saying.
The growing influence and assertiveness of Unite can only be a good thing for the Labour Party and the country in general which is crying out for a strong challenge to the failing austerity agenda, for alot more equality and a lot less liassez-faire. So, I welcome the broad strategic thrust of what McCluskey said, let’s see alot more of this assertiveness and hope it will transform the Labour Party back into one that is true to itself and its core values.