The election of Len McCluskey as the new leader of Unite must herald a new period in organised labour

by Alex Mair

The election of Len McCluskey as the new leader of Unite has caused a stir of resentment around the conservative press, within hours of the vote being counted on Sunday, The Spectator has already posted an attack on the new union leadership, on their “coffee house” blog bringing up McCluskey’s record as an organizer in Liverpool as evidence of his alleged unsuitability for the job. Len McCluskey defies the criticism saying; ‘If the right-wing media didn’t hate me, I’d think I would be doing something wrong’. This is precisely the time for trade unions to show what real political power they have. The coalition government has begun a process of sweeping social change, which will do away with large sections of the public sector, with the intention for them never to return.

The Conservative-Liberal government has planned 30-40% cuts in the public sector. Local Futures reports that the Office for Budget Responsibility sees 600,000 workers made unemployed as a result of the cuts. This fact is made all the more grim in the knowledge that in large towns and cities across the north of England, the public sector is the main employer. In Bolton and Trafford in Lancashire the public sector employs 30% of the workforce. In Middlesbrough for instance, the percentage of the work-force that is employed by the public sector is 43%, which will mean over 14,000 people out of work in a public sector that employs that employs 47,000 ordinary men and women. For Middlesbrough alone, this is another blow to an area of the world which has seen more than its fair share of difficulties and challenges. The area has struggled to recover since the devastating blows dealt to the region’s shipbuilding industry during the Thatcher years of the 1980s, and the reforms of New Labour have been slow to reach this part of the world. In 2009, Channel 4 property-lifestyle show Location, Location, Location put Middlesbrough top of its poll to find the worst place to live in the UK, an episode which launched an Ofcom report

 And yet this is the moment the trade unions can prove that, in spite of the manifold attacks on them under Margaret Thatcher, that organized labour can still make a difference to the lives of ordinary working men and women. Notice the government does not have a mandate for its reform. David Cameron has taken the Tories to their worst election victory since the 19th century; meanwhile party membership has plummeted from 250,000 under Michael Howard’s party in the 2005 General Election to just 177,000 under David Cameron. The coalition is placing the future of all of us on a wilful act of economic sadomasochism which shows every sign of making the hard times worse.

The trade unions cannot afford to be timid at this moment of crisis. Len McCluskey said that he “relishes” the challenge ahead. He must be true to his word. McCluskey narrowly beat Les Bayliss, from the right-wing of his union, who has made disparaging comments about the union’s leadership under Derek Simpson and Tony Woodley. McCluskey has run as the “unity” candidate, looking to unite the two sections of the union composed from the old Amicus and T&G unions. He must prove that he can build bridges with other area of the public sector. A majority of people did not vote for this government, and already other sectors of the population have come out to protest at the cuts ahead. Already, Britain has seen the biggest rise in student protests since 1987 when the Thatcher government introduced tuition fees. If the trade unions can establish strategic alliances with other areas of British public life it could build a formidable opposition to the ConDem government. 

Despite the attacks from the Tory press on McCluskey’s character, the opportunities for effective industrial action are numerous. Despite the short-comings of New Labour, there has been some kind of social democratic recovery over the last fifteen or twenty years; cancer waiting lists have gone down; class sizes in schools have shrunk; and there are more doctors, nurses and university graduates than at any time before 1997. There has been more investment in schools, hospitals and the arts, and there have been significant inroads into sexual, racial and cultural equality. The new Unite leadership should not let this be torn up.  Currently there are 7 million trade unionists in the UK: this is their moment.


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