Unite’s leader is keen to build a social movement against coalition cuts. That’s much easier said than done
This week Len McCluskey was officially confirmed as the newly elected general secretary of Unite, Britain’s biggest union of 1.4 million members. Straight away, he took the opportunity to outline a strategy of Unite – under his leadership – creating and leading an “alliance of resistance” to the government’s age of austerity. Called “Don’t Break Britain“, it will comprise a mobilisation of producers of public services (public sector workers) and users of public services.
So far, so good as Seumas Milne indicated in his welcome of McCluskey’s victory as a “shot in the arm for anyone who wants to see a coherent campaign of mass opposition … and the development of a genuine political alternative”.
But how easy will it be to turn words into deeds? And, more importantly, how easy will it be to turn words into effective deeds?
The foundation for doing so is not auspicious. With just 16% of Unite members voting in the Unite election – no matter the participative deficiency of postal ballots – and just 42% of those voting for McCluskey (representing 7% of all Unite members), he will have his work cut out to become the tribune of his members and others.
This turnout points to worrying lack of engagement by members, as a leading supporter of Jerry Hicks, grassroots far-left candidate and runner up to McCluskey, made clear. Collective action of the kind McCluskey wants might inspire his other members to get involved but if that action does not look credible – by dint of poor membership participation in the first place – then it’ll be an agonising Catch-22 situation.
Then there’s the internal politics of Unite. It’s well known it’s operated as something more akin to two unions rather than one since its creation from merging Amicus and the TGWU in 2007. Having just one general secretary now – as opposed to two before – should help Unite become an integrated single union. But it’s a huge job and could easily become a distraction from the external campaigning work McCluskey wants to do.
Some of the other three election candidates will no doubt have their eyes on the prize of the next general secretary election. The Workers Uniting Group that supported Les Bayliss is not likely to disband and Jerry Hicks may well set up his own permanent left network after falling out with the United Left faction that supported McCluskey.
Looking outside of Unite, a clear problem for McCluskey is Ed Miliband. McCluskey, along with other union leaders such as Mark Serwotka, believes strike action is not only inevitable but needed. But as soon as Miliband was elected, he condemned strikes against public expenditure cuts as irresponsible: hardly evidence of a supportive Labour party to which Unite is the main affiliate.
But it’s also that other unions are not singing from the same hymn sheet. Despite all the unions bar one voting at the TUC in September to co-ordinate their collective resistance, there hasn’t been much resistance so far. With job losses in the order of 50,000 in local government and the increasing use of Section 188 redundancy notices to force workers to accept inferior terms and conditions, the concerned GMB and Unison unions have yet to roar let alone sharpen their claws.
To this can be added that the very citizens outside the union movement that McCluskey wants to unite with are not themselves organised into democratic and participative membership organisations. At most these citizens, such as benefit claimants, are represented by elite pressure groups and charities. The one exception is the National Pensioners Convention. McCluskey really needs to roll up his sleeves tour up and down the country speaking to members, and not just issuing warm-sounding exhortations from union HQ, if he is to have any chance of success. It will also mean transforming Unite from a trade union into a social movement union.