As Theresa May prepares to trigger Article 50 and start the proceedings to take Britain out of the European Union, Labour finds itself yet again embroiled in bitter bloody internal warfare about the heart of the party. Who knew?
You would think the Left would be done with internal leadership contests, but don’t be daft. On Monday, ballot papers will go out to more than a million members of Unite asking them to choose who should lead Britain’s biggest trade union. Interestingly, Len McCluskey appears to have put himself up for reselection early and it’s speculated that this is due to his age. He’s 66 now and would have been nearly 68 at the due time of the next General Secretary election. This way he is younger and it guarantees him being around for the 2020 general election. And he doesn’t want to go anywhere. He’s clearly a man in his prime. A bit like Jeremy Corbyn. It really is very reassuring to know there’s just oodles of job security for aging white men on the Left right now.
This kind of internal leadership contest would not normally be of that much interest but it has blown up profound questions about the future of the Labour Party.
McCluskey is a larger than life, an almost cartoon Godfather figure in Labour politics and his presence is felt by MPs, the National Executive Committee and haunts the meeting rooms at party HQ. He has shaped almost every remarkable twist and turn in Labour’s recent story/horror show from when that row about his chosen candidate, Karie Murphy, in the infamous Falkirk by-election blew up. That resulted in Ed Miliband changing those important rules about leadership contests and, of course, the rest is history.
His support for Jeremy Corbyn has been vocal and muscular and the aforementioned Karie Murphy now runs Corbyn’s office. McCluskey has given more than £200,000 of Unite money to Corbyn’s leadership campaigns, and his public ire at Labour MPs and other wings of the party who dared to voice any dissent is pretty menacing – the irony of his leading an organisation called Unite is not lost on anyone.He declared war on anyone who took part in last summer’s ill-fated (and ill-judged) coup and as a result, he and Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson, who once shared a flat (worst episode of Men Behaving Badly ever), now share a slightly terrifying mutual loathing for each other as we have seen over the last 48 hours.
McCluskey’s vice-like grip on the party machine, and of course the money that Unite gives to Labour, makes him one of the most powerful and involved men in the party and he’s very much Corbyn’s boss.
He also appears to be busy organising behind the scenes to make sure he gets the candidate he wants when he tells Corbyn to go. This week, we learned of a rumoured plan for Unite to affiliate with the far left organisation Momentum which propelled Corbyn into power, so that they can change the rules about selecting the next leader so he or she (yeah yeah… humour me) would not need as much support from MPs and MEPs to get on the ballot paper.
This is a critical issue for the far left when it comes to succession planning and making sure they can get their candidate into the race. Love him or loathe him, McCluskey is one of the hardest-working men in the Labour Party right now. Oh. And did I forget to mention his other gig on the side is running Britain’s largest trade union, Unite?
That is why this election at Unite matters. It shouldn’t be about who controls and runs the Labour Party. It should be about who is going to stand up for Unite trade union members and strain every sinew to fight for their rights. Just as we don’t like six-job George Osborne, the leader of our biggest trade union needs to be a full-time job. You can’t be Labour leader as well.
If you care about progressive politics, we need trade union leaders to step up and make the case for the movement and collective bargaining. We live in an age where fewer and fewer people are members of a trade union or even know someone who is one. To many, they feel like something from another time.
We all know that the world of work is changing. We need a new generation of union leader who will make the case for how unions can adapt and be relevant to a workforce which is increasingly self employed, or who feel their work is highly insecure, without basic rights in the new gig economy.
The breakneck speed of technological and digital advancement will threaten jobs but create opportunities if the right skills, training and investment is developed with central and regional government and business. We need our union leaders to make the case for more family rights for women and men who have caring responsibilities, especially looking after older parents in the midst of a social care crisis. As we career into Brexit with a government that looks out of its depth, chaotic, and willing to trade workers’ rights for trade deals at any cost, we need union leaders to be all over this 24/7, not faffing about fixing the next Labour leadership contest.
It is clear that while McCluskey is a towering and active figure in Labour Party politics, things have not been going brilliantly on his watch at Unite. Membership is down and the wages of members have also gone down, which is not really meant to happen and kind of why you join a trade union.
There have been reports of an interest-free loan for a luxury flat which has cast a stain over the union when many members and their kids probably can’t get on the property ladder. There have been troubling leaked reports about sexism within Unite when it should be standing up for women at work who still face gender discrimination when they have children and get older.
It feels like things are neither progressive or effective at Unite right now and I hope members will seriously consider looking at another leader who will give it their all.
This shouldn’t be about the internal fights in the Labour Party, it should be about the bigger battle Britain is facing about protecting workers’ rights and their dignity. It should be about having a leader who will work round the clock for trade unions. Trade unions need to be mindful of the dangers of historical complacency. A bit like the Labour Party in Scotland, don’t think that unions have a God-given right to exist.
McCluskey is a man who spends so much time and energy fiddling about with the Labour Party, he clearly cannot dedicate the same focus to his trade union. I hope members will give the other candidates – Gerard Coyne, McCluskey’s main rival and Unite’s West Midlands regional secretary of 15 years, or the SWP’s Ian Allinson – the opportunity to lead Unite, not just for the future of their own union but for the wider movement. Working women and men of all ages, all over the country, really need respected, decent, vibrant, values-led trade unions, especially as we face a future so fragile and precarious.