Recently retired Unite general secretary Len McCluskey looks back on his decades of union activism
In the back streets of Liverpool, I lived in a terraced house, way, way beyond its demolition date, with no bathroom and no toilet (but with cockroaches and mice). Working-class solidarity and community spirit is what defines me. I went to work on the docks. In 1968 I joined the trade union, and that was very much about collectivism, about sticking together: when mates are in trouble, you rally behind them. That has run through my whole life.
I am anti-religion. I believe that all religions seek to divide working people, and anything that divides people for me is wrong. Religion [declares] that those that follow it are the chosen people and everybody else is wrong. I’m opposed to every single religion, whether that be Islam, Judaism, Catholicism, Protestantism. I’m not an atheist because you can neither prove nor disprove the existence of God. The only thing that really matters is the practicalities of the world that we live in.
It never even enters my head. I’m comfortable with gradual reformism. There was nothing revolutionary or Bolshevik about the 2017 Labour manifesto, for example. It was simply: ‘this is what we think might make life better’. People wanted it to go further, but I was saying: the most important thing here is just to get in and to make this reform.
The system we operate under still has 14.5 million people below the poverty line in the sixth-richest country in the world and four million kids go to school hungry every day. Now, that can’t be right. I would defy anyone, [even an] arch-Tory, to say: ‘Well, that’s life.’ Everybody would say it’s wrong; and from that develops the political debate.
The wealth that we create is not shared like should be. In 1975, 65 per cent of our GNP used to go into the salaries and wage packets of working people. Today, that is down to 50 per cent. That is enormous; and it is the source of many of the problems we have. Class politics is now frowned upon, but to me it means the majority of people, of working people who create wealth, should get a larger slice of that wealth. I haven’t studied Marx sufficiently to call myself a ‘Marxist’, for example; but I do believe that the wealth that is created by working people should be distributed in a more equitable fashion.
I thought the Occupy movement’s ‘the many’ and ‘the few’ was pretty good. A billionaire has been created every 17 hours during Covid. Eight individuals own as much as 50% of humankind. The top 100 billionaires’ earnings for one year could eradicate extreme world poverty four times over.
On national identity and internationalism
I’ve never regarded myself as English, or British. I was challenged on that: ‘Until you come to terms with your English identity, how can you challenge English nationalism, horrible jingoism?’ I still struggle [with that]. Scottish, Welsh, Irish socialists are proud to be ‘Scottish’, ‘Welsh’, ‘Irish’. Many English socialists aren’t proud to be English. Which stems from the history of the empire and the flag, which the left has rejected out of hand my whole political life. Internationalism is a class issue for me. Decent jobs, homes, education, care for the elderly are needed, throughout the world. And those problems exist because of the global capitalist system.
On Corbyn and Corbynism
Corbyn destroyed that myth that left-wingers’ views are not shared by the British public. In 2017, nearly 13 million people voted for his manifesto. He was an inspiration, especially to young people – that the establishment press have been telling us for years and years are not interested in politics. Suddenly they were, and that was because of him.
He spoke on the beach at West Kirby, an affluent area, and thousands of people [were] climbing over the sand dunes to listen. Suddenly, the media were absolutely vilifying him. Imagine the establishment in their clubs, saying: ‘How is this man challenging our control? We need to destroy Corbyn and anyone who supported him. Take down Corbynism once and for all.’
Jeremy is an incredible man. He’s changed British politics forever. But, to be a leader you need to be decisive; and he wasn’t, unfortunately. It led ultimately to his downfall on Brexit.
The planet vs material welfare
How do you improve life for the millions, indeed billions, in poverty in a way that can also tackle the climate crisis? For me, it’s about a just transition. There are good people in green politics [with] very good objectives. But elimination of well-paid jobs in certain industries without alternatives – [that] is really the question.
Developed nations can’t tell those that are developing: ‘You can’t have what we’re enjoying.’ So, it’s about equitable distribution of wealth, trying to look towards just transitions and other alternatives.
I’m very encouraged by the way young people are demanding it and pressurising governments, which will not respond positively if left to their own devices. That’s where I believe red politics, the advancement of socialism, and green politics can work together.