Besides letting us all have a chuckle at Len McCluskey considering his re-election something of a formality only to find his position far from assured, the campaign around who will be general secretary of Unite the Union tells us pretty much everything one might wish to know about the travails of the modern Left in Britain.
Michael Chessum, the Momentum activist who often writes for the New Statesman, wrote an article at the end of this week entitled “Len McCluskey’s grip on Unite is far from assured“. It lays bare all of the problems of the Left, some of which Michael is aware of, many of which he seems blind to and thus are communicated what seems to be unintentionally (Michael is actually a decent writer, and as someone actually inside of Momentum relates the bunker mentality of the Corbyn inner ring better than anyone). One paragraph in particular stands out in the article:
“Unite’s support for Heathrow expansion and the Hinkley Point nuclear plant, as well as its triangulation on Trident, not only put awkward distance between its policies and Corbyn’s. They also point to an ideological division that in the past would have separated many Corbynites from McCluskey. On some level, Unite’s current leadership is committed to a “partnership” version of trade unionism, in which workers’ interests are defended by promoting the interests of industry, whatever the environmental cost or bigger picture.”
This gets to the very heart of the problem the Left faces at present. Unite supports Heathrow expansion, the nuclear industry, Trident renewal and the “interests of industry” because their members deeply support those things. And Unite only really exists to advance the professional interests of its members; it is what trade unions actually do. Unite members partly support these things because there are working-class jobs tied to them; partly because the values the vast majority of these workers hold means they support things such as Trident in and of themselves. In another part of the article, Michael has a go at McCluskey’s support for firmer immigration controls. Again, this is in line with the desires of most of Unite’s membership.
All of this is far removed from the Corbynite concerns of most of the Labour Party’s members, who are basically very, very left-wing liberals. Contained within that are a lot of contradictions, not least of which is thinking that trade unionism is by definition a good thing and that Labour’s links with the unions are critical to the ongoing health of the party, all while disagreeing with what most union members want on almost every issue. This isn’t a situation that can last indefinitely – either trade unions try harder to conform to the desires of the Labour Left and then die out as a result, or eventually unions will disaffiliate. Either way, the Labour Party suffers a deep wound.
Or, I suppose we could find a more working-class Labour Party that people like Michael Chessum would despise passionately but that may reconnect with working-class voters. More likely, such a move would be too late to capture its target audience and would only bleed the remainder of Labour’s liberal/Remainer support to the Liberal Democrats.