Len McCluskey, newly elected leader of Unite, tells the Guardian he wants to force the government to step back from plans to ‘decimate the very fabric of the welfare state’
Len McCluskey, the newly elected leader of Unite, Britain’s biggest trade union, today put himself and his union at the forefront of “an alliance of resistance” that he promised would rock the establishment and force the coalition government to step back from its plans to “decimate the very fabric of the welfare state”.
He also claimed that an anger was building up in the country that surpassed the era of the poll tax demonstrations and claimed there was “a very, very real possibility” that the Liberal Democrats would implode as a party.
In an interview with the Guardian he promised he would not be cowering in the corner, but instead would be shouting from the rooftops to force the coalition government to stop its cuts.
He also told those briefing against Ed Miliband to desist, saying they should “get over it” and realise they had lost the Labour leadership election. He defended his union’s role in securing the leadership for Miliband but said he was happy for the party to review its election rules.
He suggested figures like Lord Mandelson should leave the stage and realise “the Blairite era of free markets and neoliberalism had failed”.
Predicting a growing fightback against the government, he said: “In the opinion polls and certainly by the time you get to the next elections in May, you will see at the ballot box the blame being handed out. People are particularly seeing the Liberal Democrats as the betrayers and they will suffer.”
He predicted: “There is a real, real danger that the Liberal Democrats could implode – their role has been a sleight of hand.”
He added: “I think the same could be said about the Conservatives because none of these devastating announcements made by them were debated or discussed by the electorate. By next May the national health service is going to privatised completely without any proper parliamentary debate. Ordinary people would be absolutely horrified if they knew what the issues were.”
He vowed: “I feel passionate about it. I will stand on the rooftops and shout about it and we will do everything in our power to resist it. We will join together the public and private sector workers.”
He went on: “I am not interested in subtlety. I understand what is happening to ordinary working people – their jobs are being lost, their families and the future of their children are being threatened, their houses are being repossessed and they are looking around for someone to give them help.
“There is an anger building up the likes of which we have not seen in our country since the poll tax. I can feel something stronger than that building so it is the responsibility of the trades unions more than anyone else to give some guidance to that anger and put it in a manner that will hopefully make the government take a step back.”
He insisted he would not be rushing ahead of his troops. “We have got to make people believe that people power can do anything because that is what the history of our movement tells us and indeed that is what the history of the world tells us.
“Already there are hundreds and hundreds of coalition cuts committees springing up all over the UK. I am interested in building an alliance of resistance. We have got to make certain that the demonstration being planned by the TUC for March is so big “it rocks the establishment and makes them step back”.
Asked if he feared that co-ordinated strikes could be interpreted by the courts as being political and might fall foul of the law, he said: “Do I believe the law is sacrosanct? Absolutely I do not. If there are bad laws not only is it right to oppose them but your duty to do so.
“[Nelson] Mandela may have taken that position over the laws of apartheid and [Mahatma] Gandhi may have taken that position over the laws of colonialism and imperialism, and the Suffragettes might have said we do not accept the law of the land. So I do not think we should get hung up in this belief certainly as trade union leaders that the law is given down from Mount Sinai and we cannot challenge it.”
But he added he was not going to be self-destructive: “I have got no intention of playing the bosses’ game of being dragged into cul-de-sacs and courts, and having to be fined by courts with our members’ money. I am not stupid. We will engage and we will fight in every way we possibly can without being stupid, and without ruling anything out.”
He added: “At the end of the day there is no point a general going onto the battlefield and there is no army behind you. I have been around a long time. I know the media are trying to paint me as Red Len and always wanting strikes. The truth is that I have been representing working people for 40 years and 90% of the time we have been able to conclude satisfactory solutions. I have no intention of rushing ahead of our members, but I have also go to lead.”
He is planning a series of conferences and tracking polls to check his membership’s views.
But McCluskey said: “We have to be brave enough; this is no time for cowering in the corner, this is no time for lying down and letting people tickle our tummy – this is time to be proud of our traditions and values and stand up and fight them.”
He said the TUC was working towards a spring campaign. “We have got to work and build for that; we have got to make certain that is the kind of demonstration that rocks the establishment, and with council elections nothing concentrates politicians’ minds so much as pressure.
“We have got to start putting pressure on politicians particularly the Liberal Democrats; they have to be held accountable for what they have done there. They have tried to give the impression this would be a government of consensus but where is the consensus?
There are good people in the Liberal Democrats who have long been on the side of decency and justice. A lot of them are deeply dissatisfied, and if we build our resistance, and that may bring pressure to bear inside their party. The people we have to influence are the Liberal Democrats.
We are being asked to believe there is no alternative to cuts. Don’t fall for it. The last time that sinister mantra was peddled was in the 80s by Thatcher. We are still suffering from that and we are being asked to fall for the same con trick again.”
He said he was looking forward to engaging with Miliband because his Labour conference speech had been “music to my ears”. He said “For the first time in conference, I heard a political leader challenge the economic orthodoxy has ruled the world financial scene for 30 years – the question of neoliberalism and free market rule. He basically effectively said New Labour was dead and it was time for a new generation, not in age terms but in terms of ideas.
“I thought that was very brave of him and it was absolutely spot on because millions or working people are getting told there is no alternative and really do want to hear that. They don’t want to hear there is no alternative to these slash-and-burn attacks on our community and the decimation of very fabric of a welfare state created after the second world war.”
Currently operating out of a small office in the union headquarters in Holborn, central London, McCluskey is a former Liverpool docker who for a while in his youth flirted with the Militant Tendency. There is a black and white drawing of Lenin writing at a desk, posters from an earlier Transport and General Workers’ Union era, a record by Labi Siffre and a biography of Jack Jones, the legendary leader of the TGWU, as well as photos of McCluskey’s family.
He speaks without the booming, often one-dimensional angry voice of his Unite predecessor Tony Woodley but his politics, and Liverpudlian accent, appear as uncompromising.
“I have no intention of rushing ahead of my members,” he said. “I have never done that in the past, and I won’t do that now.”