Don’t look to Len McCluskey and his sorry ilk to defend workers’ interests

Guardian Web |

We ought to be living in a stirring age of worker resistance. About four-fifths of the population think stronger trade unions are needed to shift the balance of power in the workplace. The settled opinion of the nation is that managers and rentiers are pocketing undeserved riches while millions live on low pay and at the mercy of their whims.

All politics is underlaid by the hard fact that we are living through the worst period of wage stagnation since the “long depression” of 1873 to 1896 began 145 years ago. It sparked phenomena that echo today. Bismarck fought a culture war against German Catholics in the conquered territories of the Prussian empire. The Putinesque figure of Tsar Alexander III established the Okhrana, the forerunner of the FSB, to harry Russian liberals and socialists. Every great power except Britain joined the trade wars with which we will soon be reacquainting ourselves.

Yet one development from the stagnation of the 19th century finds no echo in the stagnation of the 21st. Falling real wages led to an explosion of trade unionism among previously unrepresented workers. The 1880s was the decade of union leaders whose names still resonate: Annie Besant who led the matchgirls’ strike of 1888 ; Ben Tillett who led the London dock strike of 1889. They organised ignored men and women, who, in their dependence on precarious employment, were the ancestors of today’s Deliveroo riders and Amazon warehouse labourers.

I doubt you can name one modern trade union leader who is a charismatic and persuasive presence in the media; one who can talk a language the young understand and recruit from the new workforce of women and migrant minorities while emphasising their solidarity with white working-class men.

Who leads Unison? Who leads the GMB? Don’t be embarrassed if you don’t know: they have given you no reason to notice them.

The only leader you will have heard of is Len McCluskey of Unite. He’s not familiar because he has led the way in unionising the marginalised and the exploited but because Unite is playing the vanguard role, to adopt the language of Leninism, in consolidating the far left’s control of the Labour party. McCluskey supported the old Revolutionary Socialist League when it called itself Militant and tried to take over Labour. The Scottish aristocrat Andrew Murray (he’s descended from the earls of Perth and the kings of Navarre on his father’s side and the dukes of Norfolk on his mother’s) not only offers apologies for Lenin but Stalin too. He’s moved from Unite and the Communist Party of Britain to join Seumas Milne, another apologist for Uncle Joe, in Jeremy Corbyn’s office.

Unite is trying to force through the appointment of its official Jennie Formby as Labour’s new general secretary on the grounds that she is the feminist candidate who will challenge the patriarchy. Its egalitarian argument would carry greater force were she not McCluskey’s former mistress. Was it for this that Emily Davison died?

The Trump White House and the leader of the opposition’s office have much in common. The foul smell of racism hangs over both enterprises, but Republican and Labour politicians and journalists hold their noses and bite their tongues for fear of enraging the leader’s base. Both live in a world of second-rate soap opera. Can Steve Bannon find a way back into favour? Is it over for Jon Lansman now he’s dared to contradict “Jeremy”? In both instances, the nepotism matches the cronyism. Trump employs his daughter and son-in-law. John McDonnell employs Corbyn’s son.

I could go on. But discussions of court politics miss the lost opportunity to offer relief to millions of workers. While Unite intrigues, the union movement is dying. Membership has fallen from 13m in 1979 to 6.5m today. Unions are concentrated in the public sector, whose managers feel obliged to talk to them. In the private sector, where fighting for union recognition is a harder and hence more urgent task, a mere 14% of workers are trade unionists. Union members are more likely to be well paid than poorly paid, white collar than blue collar, old than young.

Far away from the Labour party’s factionalism, activists the old Labour movement would have recognised are winning small victories that stand out because they are so rare. The entertainment industry union Bectu managed against the odds to organise isolated freelance camera crews and force film and TV producers to stop undercutting their rates. The shop workers’ union Usdaw fights equally necessary and difficult struggles to stop cut-price supermarkets cutting pay and conditions, while the new Independent Workers Union broke away from the stale Unite and Unison bureaucracies, recruited Spanish-speaking activists and sent them to organise the South American cleaners at the University of London.

Successful activists have little in common with the old far-left-dominated unions. One Bectu officer explained that his colleagues placed an absolute priority on building a consensus among members rather than ordering them around. They refused to let the union be used for political purposes but concentrated on workers’ pay and conditions. Lenin, whose work you must understand to understand the Labour leadership, despised trade unions precisely because pay and conditions were their sole concern. A vanguard of professional revolutionaries, led by himself, naturally, needed to take them over and direct the muddle-headed and faintly contemptible proletariat to socialism.

That note of contempt can still be heard. The majority of British unions, with their complicated structures and tiny turnouts in union elections, suit the far left. It would struggle to retain control if union membership reflected the workforce and strategies were built on consensus rather than diktats of whatever Stalinist or Trotskyist faction could stay awake the longest in the interminable meetings.

There are many reasons why workers are enduring the worst wage stagnation in 145 years – anti-union laws, the decline of heavy industry. One deserves more attention than it receives: workers have the most stagnant leaders in 145 years.

Nick Cohen is an Observer columnist

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