In the red forward line

Reading Len McCluskey’s autobiography will provide today’s activists with an invaluable insight into developments in the British labour movement during his term of office as the Unite union general secretary, argues PETER TAAFFE, and be an important preparation for future battles.

Always Red

By Len McCluskey

Published by OR Books, 2021, £16-99

Always Red by Len McCluskey, the recently retired general secretary of Unite, is a powerful and interesting autobiographical account of his life. It demonstrates the huge effect he has had on members of both Unite, the biggest trade union in Britain and Ireland, and the broader labour movement generally. It is vital for understanding the events in the British labour movement during his term of office. They encompass developments both in the trade unions and on the political terrain. His book is particularly relevant for helping to understand the tumultuous events in the Labour Party with the rise of Jeremy Corbyn to leader.

For this reason, its publication has earned the scorn and hostility from nominally ‘radical’ figures such as John Harris in the Observer, who complained that Len, allegedly, “routinely described as ‘despicable’, ‘spineless’ and ‘unforgivable’” right-wing trade union leaders and their echoes in the Labour Party. He also criticises Lenny McCluskey for his support of the miners’ strike, as well as for “the so-called Militant Tendency’s torrid spell in charge of his native Liverpool”. Harris doesn’t reveal that he himself was an unsuccessful past opponent of Militant, the predecessor of the Socialist Party, in the Labour Party Young Socialists. However, when Socialist Party members successfully led the resistance to the threatened eviction of tenants on the Butterfields estate in east London, he visited the campaign with a film crew and at no time expressed hostility. He even bought a copy of the Socialist!

Lenny does not disguise his association with Militant and support for our political stance. He writes: “Contrary to popular belief, I was never a member of the Militant Tendency, although I was attracted to many of their policies”. He was courted by “every conceivable Trotskyist group – the Workers Revolutionary Party, Workers Socialist League, Socialist Workers Party… They were like bees around honey [but] I had no empathy with them”. Militant however “seemed to me completely different. Here were people who lived in my community, worked in real jobs, and spoke a language that dealt with issues that mattered in a realistic and understandable way. It was said the Militant Tendency gave respectability to Trotskyism and there was an element of truth in that. Although they are still around today as the Socialist Party, Militant were successful back then because they were a force within Labour”.

Militant and Liverpool

He supported our stand in the battle over the role of the working class and programme of fighting all cuts by Liverpool city council. “In the late 1980s Militant were expelled from the Labour Party and debarred from office”. Many “sought to distance themselves from them and deny any past association. I was not one of the deniers”. He also shows his instinctive opposition to Stalinism when he writes: “I was thinking of joining the Communist Party in 1969, but I couldn’t get the previous year’s Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia out of my mind”. On a visit to Glasgow, he recalls meeting Mick McGahey, then one of the leaders of the Communist Party. McGahey believed that Lenny was “a bit of a Trot” but with “his arm around my shoulder… said, ‘Always remember son, Uncle Joe [Stalin] wasn’t all bad’.”

Unlike the then Labour leader Neil Kinnock and the majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party, Lenny was instinctively on the side of Liverpool city council. He is, quite correctly, laudatory about their achievements, including the political stand of Militant supporters like Derek Hatton and the late Tony Mulhearn: “Kinnock was praised by the right-wing establishment for disowning the council. But in Liverpool the bravery of the 47 councillors who were eventually debarred… is still remembered. The title of the 1988 book by Peter Taaffe and Tony Mulhearn: ‘Liverpool:  A City that Dared to Fight’ is apt (and it’s a good read)”.

As Lenny points out, it was not just Liverpool which was singled out for attack, but the miners too. There were sickening denunciations by right-wing trade union leaders, like electricians’ leader Eric Hammond, on the miners’ leadership, particularly on Arthur Scargill. The miners were, according to Hammond, “lions led by donkeys”. This was answered devastatingly by Ron Todd, the leader of the Transport & General Workers’ Union (a legacy union of Unite) at the time, who declared: “I am an animal lover, but I tell you what, I’d rather be a donkey than a jackal!”

It was indelibly imprinted into the minds of workers, particularly those involved in the struggle, of just how treacherous was the role of the so-called leadership of the labour movement, particularly Kinnock. Lenny describes the mood of the time: “I had lived through the heroic battles between Liverpool city council, heavily influenced by Militant from 1983, and the Thatcher government. These were incredible, heady days. District Labour Party meetings would have attendances of 700-800 members. Democratic argument raged. The city was alive with debate. It was so intoxicating it almost had the feel of the Smolny Institute in the 1917 October revolution”.

Lessons from struggle

Accounts of past experiences of the working class, even in the form of a political autobiography, can assume great importance for future battles. It is vital to learn the lessons from past struggles in order to prepare for the monumental class battles that surely impend in Britain in the next period. The officer caste in capitalist armies seek to learn from past wars and military clashes. So also do Marxists study the history of labour struggles in preparation for future battles in the class war. One of these lessons which the author stresses is that the struggle will not be confined just to the industrial field but will also spread to the political plane, and all the vital social issues which affect the lives of the working class.

Nothing could be worse than having faulty leadership at the head of a potentially important movement. The poll tax was such a mighty movement, which Lenny touches on but does not deal with in any great detail. He writes: “The new decade spelled the end of the line for Margaret Thatcher, brought down not by Labour leader Neil Kinnock but by a people’s revolt against her hated poll tax”.

However, he does not present the whole story of how the poll tax was defeated. It was not just a product of a spontaneous rejection of the poll tax by the British people. Nor was it as a result of the Trafalgar Square ‘riot’, as some ultra-lefts claim. It was not industrial action which defeated this iniquitous tax. It was through the campaign of mass non-payment initiated by Militant, with some support from below by the trade unions. Militant supporters were to the fore, both at local level and in the All-Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation mass movement.

It was the conscious policy of ‘non-payment’ which led to punitive sanctions, including jail, by Thatcher’s government, local councils and the courts for refusal to pay. Moreover, this incurred considerable sacrifice with the jailing of hundreds of non-payers, one of whom was the immortal Terry Fields, Militant supporter and Labour MP. He was jailed in Walton Prison and, for his sacrifice, he was expelled from the Labour Party by the unspeakable Neil Kinnock. Dave Nellist MP was also charged with the same ‘crime’ of successfully resisting the Thatcher government and was consequently expelled from the Labour Party by the Kinnock cabal.

Merger with PCS

This book also raises issues of more recent trade unionism. At one stage it looked like the civil servants’ union PCS might merge with Unite. Lenny McCluskey looked favourably on such a merger and the possibility that Mark Serwotka, the general secretary of PCS, would ultimately replace him. We possessed considerable strength in the rank and file and among elected officers in PCS. We had established a strong presence at all levels of this union, long before Mark Serwotka came on the scene. The late John Macreadie, a very talented comrade of ours, was elected as general secretary of the union in 1986. However, he was then scandalously manoeuvred out of the leadership by the right-wing officialdom.

Serwotka was able to step in later and take the position as a new ‘left’ general secretary. He had a very weak base originally and was forced to lean on the left and mainly our supporters. This was rewarded by his constant manoeuvres, particularly directed against PCS assistant general secretary Chris Baugh, a long-standing member of the Socialist Party.

This came to a head with Serwotka manoeuvring, with the assistance of a small band of renegades from our party, to completely side-line and then remove Chris, together with other supporters of the Socialist Party. (See PCS: The Real Issues At Stake, in Socialism Today No.221, September 2018) Over time, Serwotka shifted the union towards the right industrially and politically, summed up in his “parking” of the union’s national pay claim over the heads of its lay leadership NEC at the beginning of the Covid lockdown, in a capitulation to national unity. At the same time, more power was vested in unaccountable full-time officials rather than in the active rank and file. All this was the exact opposite to the line of march adopted in Unite under the leadership of Lenny McCluskey.

Lenny correctly states: “The greatness of a leader is determined by the calibre of the people they have around them”. Mark Serwotka surrounded himself with defectors from the Socialist Party as well as opportunist place-seekers from the right-wing officialdom.

Falkirk and battles within Labour

However, while the author deals with industrial issues, it is the political events – particularly in the Labour Party, around the election and subsequent removal of Jeremy Corbyn – that most interest will be generated. Unite’s leadership played a key role not just industrially but also politically in the tumultuous developments within the Labour Party around the election as Labour leader of Jeremy Corbyn, and in the battles with the Blairites attempting to defeat Corbyn and the left.

The woeful leadership of Ed Miliband led to shameless manoeuvring in Falkirk Labour Party in Scotland.  Unite proposed their own candidate, originally Stevie Deans: “The Labour right, led by Peter Mandelson, was up in arms, claiming we were trying to manipulate the selection… As far as the Blairites were concerned, Labour belonged to them. Here was Unite threatening their cosy little club”. All this resulted in the union, along with others, seriously considering the question of starting to build a new party. “The idea was under discussion…”

Following this, Miliband and the right used the Collins review, a report of the trade unions’ relationship to the Labour Party, to cut down and render ineffective the voice of the unions, when in fact the Labour Party was originally created as the political expression of the trade union movement and working-class interests. For this reason, we opposed the Collins review, while Lenny McCluskey supported it. We did not just accept the use of the union ‘block vote’ when it was wielded very undemocratically by the general secretaries of the unions. We sought to make it more accountable to trade union members and more democratic. We opposed Collins because the Labour right quite clearly wanted to emasculate the collective voice of the trade unions, and to concentrate effective power in the hands of the right-wing Parliamentary Labour Party.

However, we then saw a spectacular manifestation of the law of unintended consequences. The acceptance of the Collins report allowed new ‘registered supporters’ to vote in the election for a new party leader for the ‘price of a pint of beer’ (£3 in the 2015 leadership contest). This, together with the narrow and almost accidental nomination of Jeremy Corbyn as a leadership contender, completely transformed the contest for the Labour leadership. Corbyn issued a radical manifesto – including the promise to abolish the iniquitous university tuition fees – which electrified the campaign by mobilising mass student and youth support, helping to completely transform the election.

Lenny reminds us that Corbyn won a landslide victory (59.5%) in the Labour leadership contest, winning in every section of the electorate: the trade union affiliated members, the registered supporters, and the individual full members of the party (although not securing an absolute majority amongst the latter, the existing party members). However, as soon as the result was known, “the wreckers got to work immediately”. He also shows in some detail how the right would rather “destroy their party than allow the left to succeed”. The details reinforcing his arguments are familiar to readers of this journal and the members of the Socialist Party as well as the broader labour movement. Nevertheless, it is vital to remind the broader movement and particularly its more politically developed layer about the unreconstructed right-wing character of the Parliamentary Labour Party. Even some nominally ‘left’ parliamentarians, councillors and the organically opportunist layers that still infest official Labour are a major barrier to the Labour Party being able to combat capitalism and carry through the socialist reconstruction of society.

Fallout from the EU referendum

The author deals at length with the issue of the European Union (EU) which was a dominating theme at the time. Unfortunately, Corbyn dithered on remain or leave, and consequently occupied the worst of all worlds, neither clearly for or against. We opposed the pro-capitalist EU and stood for ‘lexit’, a break from this capitalist club on clear class and socialist lines. We did not favour the narrow nationalism of the right of the Tory party but envisaged a break from the EU being linked to the idea of a democratic socialist confederation of Europe. However, the attempt to mollify the implacable ‘remain’ right wing of the Labour Party alienated many workers. Lenny McCluskey reported to Corbyn on the “spirit of revolt brewing among the working class. I could feel it as I went round the country campaigning. In workplaces I visited our shop stewards and activists would say, ‘Len, we get what you’re saying to us, but we’ve got to tell you that on the shop floor our members are absolutely hostile to the EU’.” The majority of the working class was opposed to the pro-boss image of the EU.

He reports that he crossed paths outside parliament with Boris Johnson during the EU referendum campaign. Their brief conversation went as follows. “How do you think it’s going – the [EU] campaign?”, Johnson asked. Lenny replied, “I don’t think it’s going too well. I think a lot of our members will be voting Leave”. “Yes, yes”, declared Johnson, “that’s what I’m picking up”. Then Lenny adds: “I couldn’t resist having a pop at him. ‘You’ll be trying to take over here next… That’ll be no good to us because you hate trade unions’.” Johnson replied: “I don’t hate trade unions. I think trade unions are a good thing”. Unsurprisingly, there’s little evidence of this ‘good thing’ as Johnson, now prime minister, holds down public sector pay while bosses’ profits jump to dizzying heights.

Defending Corbyn

The latter part of the book deals with the treacherous role played by the right in its attempts to stymie the 2017 Labour general election campaign and subsequently laying the ground for the removal of Corbyn. Lenny reports that Diane Abbott MP commented that the intention of the right-wing’s campaign was aimed to break Corbyn not just politically but “as a man”. Corbyn “went directly from being pilloried by Labour MPs… told by no-marks he wasn’t ‘fit to be prime minister’ and that resigning would be’ the most important contribution you can make to the Labour Party’.” This at a time when the party was experiencing “the most spectacular membership surge ever seen in those days and weeks, with 130,000 new members joining in a fortnight. Online, more people signed a motion of confidence in Corbyn than had voted for him in the original leadership election”.

Yet none of this was able to deflect the Blairites and the rest of the baying right from putting the knife into Jeremy Corbyn. Even the left began to wobble. The Guardian journalist Owen Jones called at this time for Corbyn to make a deal with the Parliamentary Labour Party “where he can stand down in exchange for a guarantee of an MP on the ballot paper who is committed to the policies that inspired Corbyn’s supporters in the first place”. (The Guardian, 2 March 2017) Lenny writes: “After the election was called, Owen Jones came to see me… He was convinced we were going to get wiped out… He said it wasn’t too late to change leader. I said ‘Owen, are you living on the same planet as me? That’s ridiculous. We’re in an election campaign’. He told me I was the only one who could get Jeremy to stand down. I said, ‘I’m pleased about that because I’m not fucking doing it, so let’s move on’.”

The Labour right actively sabotaged Corbyn’s 2017 general election campaign, as Lenny comments: “MP John Woodcock declared he would ‘not countenance’ making Corbyn prime minister even while expecting to stand to be a Labour MP. He should have been deselected there and then, but the right still controlled the National Executive Committee and Tom Watson protected him. Woodcock was later given a peerage for services rendered”.

Despite the Labour right’s efforts, whenever Corbyn appeared in public he was met with ecstatic support, particularly on Merseyside with its long radical traditions, as Lenny explains. He recounts that Corbyn spoke on the beach at West Kirby, in both Lenny’s and my own region, with “images of thousands of people clambering over sand dunes to hear the Labour leader. From there he went to Prenton Park, home of Tranmere Rovers football club, in Birkenhead [where I played schoolboy football], to speak in front of 20,000 music fans… Instead of jeering him, they sang: ‘Oh Je-re-my Cor-byn… That night, an opinion poll had Labour on 35%, the same share of the vote that Tony Blair got in the 2005 election”. This was followed by very successful mass meetings up and down the country where Corbyn went from strength to strength.

At stake was not just the political fate of Jeremy Corbyn but the more overriding issue of how to transform the Labour Party into a weapon for the working class to begin to change society in a socialist direction. We had had our doubts about this and hence our attempt to lay the foundations for an alternative through the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition. However, we went along with the wishes of those left-moving workers and socialists to use the opportunity of Corbyn’s accession to the Labour leadership to begin to transform the situation. But from the beginning we demanded that Labour open its doors to all of those who were prepared to fight, who were socialists and prepared to participate in what would become an open and welcoming mass, specifically socialist party.

However, opposition to us came not just from the right but from the erstwhile left in the leadership of organisations like Momentum. We predicted that without a Marxist backbone, with the Socialist Party openly participating, the amorphous left gathered around Corbyn would face tenacious opposition from the Labour right, which could lead to many of them capitulating. Others would inevitably move towards the right, shedding their former radical left programme, such as open, mandatory reselection of Labour MPs.

McCluskey, Starmer and the future

When Keir Starmer put himself forward as a ‘left’ alternative after Corbyn’s 2019 general election defeat, we opposed him. Unfortunately, some on the left, including Lenny McCluskey, were willing to give Starmer the benefit of the doubt. We didn’t. In his youth, Starmer had been a member of a small obscure and ineffective Trotskyist organisation. As the French say, ‘under thirty a revolutionary, thereafter a scoundrel’. He emigrated from there to the Labour Party, qualified as a barrister, and then became the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) in the capitalist state, which led to him becoming knighted – a ‘Sir’. In his role as the DPP he presided over the persecution and prosecution of the heroic students who had occupied the Tory party headquarters in 2010, in protest at the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government’s trebling of tuition fees. His record, let alone the appellation of ‘Sir’, should have barred him as a serious opponent to the Tories and capitalism.

As we predicted, Starmer has become the new fountainhead of the Blairite counter-revolution in the Labour Party, which has been rapidly moved towards the right. This in turn poses the absolute necessity of preparing the ground for the creation of a new mass party of the working class, organised on clear class lines and with class fighters who will provide a socialist backbone for the big struggles to come. Lenny McCluskey’s book is very effective in illuminating how working-class militancy can achieve great things both on the trade union and the political level.

Sharon Graham’s success in winning the vote for the new general secretary of Unite in a tough contest is also a powerful indicator of the big changes which are coming in Britain. She has already given notice that Unite and its left leadership can play a decisive role in transforming the lives of millions of workers through confronting shameful low-pay employers, and attacks on living standards by the employers and the Johnson government.

This means that the battle on the shop floor must be organically linked to the political struggle. The inevitable opposition of the Labour right has to be defeated if we are to create a mass political instrument, which can serve as a mighty lever for the British working class to transform the situation, and thereby lay the foundations for real democratic socialism in Britain that will resonate throughout Europe and the world.