Always Red book review – an incisive political brief with lessons for all of the left
LEN McCLUSKEY’s autobiography Always Red was published in the press as an attack on Keir Starmer’s new Labor leadership.
Many critics have been hostile to his policies: but this will hardly surprise McCluskey, who has both been the victim of slanderous media mistreatment and a witness to the concerted personality assassination campaign launched in the mainstream media against Jeremy Corbyn during five years.
As he himself notes, “the British press, dominated by billionaire-owned, right-wing, conservative-supporting newspapers, sets a narrative that treats all strikes as bad and nearly all bosses as brave entrepreneurs.
“The only daily that is systematically on the side of the workers is the Morning Star” (yes, I was always going to quote that line).
Others, more sympathetic, still see Always Red as a memoir, the apology of a retired general secretary and the defense of a political project – Corbynism – which has failed.
This is indeed a strong defense of Corbynism and Unite’s role in helping to shape and sustain this movement, but it is not simply a reflection on the past.
There are important lessons in this book and anyone interested in the future of the left and the labor movement should read it.
It won’t be a chore. Always Red is written in the same direct and engaging style as McCluskey’s previous book, Why You Should Be a Trade Unionist, telling its story “with clarity and relevance,” to quote another great labor activist, the late Kevin Halpin.
Given that it spans five decades of union and political activity, it is impressively contained within 300 pages of vivid prose.
It’s shamelessly a political memoir: McCluskey recounts his childhood in Liverpool and speaks warmly about his family, but above all it’s a book about the left and the labor movement, and that’s what makes it useful.
This shouldn’t imply that it’s heavy reading. Always Red is witty and anecdotes about McCluskey’s life can be hilarious, from his failed attempt to join the Paris uprising in 1968 with his friend Tony Corrigan (unwilling to admit to his friends that they are never gone further than London, the other couple on their heads with sticks to give themselves convincing “barricade wounds”) when he had to feign an interest in sports architecture, art nouveau and the theater from the provinces to take an interview (“I had soon exhausted my repeated lines …”)
The book splits neatly in two, From Cradle to Brave – recounting his life on the docks, his early experiences as a trade unionist framed in the class struggle by communist union delegates and his journey to lead the country’s largest union in from 2010 – and From Falkirk to Finsbury Park, which is primarily the story of the Corbyn movement and Unite’s role in it.
McCluskey is as proud of Unite’s industrial record as he is of his policies, and is scathing at union leaders who prefer to strike deals with bosses rather than stand up for workers – there is real pain in his account of how the Bill Morris’ Transport & General union failed to support Liverpool dockers in the 1990s.
When examining union defeats – and since the 1970s there have been plenty – he’s always keen to learn lessons and see if different decisions might lead to a different outcome in the next battle.
He identifies three innovations of Unite during his tenure as leader that he sees as crucial to his industrial strength: a very large strike fund, to prevent workers from returning to work hungry; the creation of Unite Community, giving voice to the unemployed and thus strengthening workers by adding community mobilization to the union arsenal in the event of conflict; and “the most exciting, the leverage … an explosive tactic and not to be used lightly.”
McCluskey identifies his successor, Sharon Graham (“the best organizer in all of Europe”), as the first pioneer of this strategy, which had precursors in the tactics used in conflicts like the Magnet Kitchens strike of the 1990s.
Leverage – identifying the weak spots of an aggressive employer and targeting them through methods other than ordinary industrial action – infuriates bosses and is misrepresented in the media as targeting family members of corporate executives. business or otherwise personalizing conflicts.
In fact, while stunts “like showing up at a CEO’s golf club” are sometimes present, the most serious pressure is exerted by targeting subcontractors or highlighting labor disputes with employment agencies. rating and market analysts, often affecting the value of stocks simply by talking about what the union plans to do.
It can also internationalize conflict, using union solidarity to make the voice of UK workers heard on the boards of global companies.
McCluskey recounts how the sacking of a Unite official on the Crossrail project reverberated around the world when the union targeted a contractor on the project who was also operating across the Atlantic (“Sharon had succeeded to close a bridge in Toronto because of a conflict in London “).
There is serious strategic thinking in these techniques on how unions can win for workers in a world dominated by giant transnational corporations.
However, most politicians will read Always Red for McCluskey’s inner take on the Corbyn years.
As the labor conference opens this year with an argument over Starmer’s proposal to re-establish the electoral college for the selection of party leaders, it appropriately begins with McCluskey’s judicious move to respond to a completely unfounded attack. against Unite by Ed Miliband in 2013 in welcoming the move to a deputy, a system of votes – even though it was a proposal from the Labor right intended to weaken the influence of the unions.
Many other union leaders were baffled by Unite’s support for the change – frankly, the Morning Star too – but developments were to show how fair it was.
The parliamentary party was too detached from reality to realize that launching a competition open to ordinary deputies and even non-members (registered supporters) would not strengthen the right.
The hypothesis was based on the belief that the public was to the right of unions – but it failed to notice the deep dissatisfaction with the status quo across Britain and the thirst for radical change that spawned to corbynism.
This story is still worth telling due to the tremendous effort put into erasing it.
The Corbyn movement was a remarkable phenomenon: a leader who had virtually no support in Parliament, who only got to the polls through MPs who were sure they could not win, lending him votes, thus doubling more the size of the Labor Party and storing it in 2017, its biggest increase in share of the vote in seven decades on a socialist platform.
Establishment critics sniff that Labor has always lost, or claim (against the evidence) that this was an anti-Brexit vote and that a more right-wing leader would have won against Theresa May. It is therefore vitally important that the left does not allow myths to take hold.
The Labor vote in 2017 rose sharply across the country, in leave and retention areas, in Labor strongholds, all the way through the Red Wall lost in 2019, in the heart of the Tories.
And given the circumstances – widespread hostility in the media, two years after Corbyn’s daily demonization, a year after nearly the entire parliamentary party attempted to overthrow him – the result has been a startling testament to the power of this socialist manifesto and ordinary people. win over others in the teeth of establishment propaganda.
McCluskey is absolutely right to focus on the historic significance of the 2017 election and the hope that they should continue to inspire the left to win.
Of course, we all know what followed, and McCluskey’s account of the 2017-19 period is disheartening.
In attributing the call for Labor’s collapse to their renunciation of the promise to honor the referendum on the EU, he agrees with the analysis consistently made by this newspaper.
He sadly recounts the infestation of the holiday with “Remainitis” (“Emily Thornberry[’s] … The condition had become so severe that she had become accustomed to wearing a blue dress and a gold star necklace in an attempt to look like a moving EU flag… ”) and the bitterness that this provoked among the members of Unite.
Some, like Starmer, may have understood the damage they were doing to Corbyn’s chances and didn’t care – the New Management chapter is compelling enough to describe Starmer’s core dishonesty – but it’s a sad one. fact that many sincere Corbyn supporters, including some at the top, were complicit in the collapse of collective discipline and the failure of all attempts to forge a compromise that would have stopped the Remain from drifting away.
Corbyn is also not immune to censorship for failing to give the clear lead that could have stopped the rot.
The result is history. But the socialist resurgence does not have to be. The hundreds of thousands inspired by Corbynism still exist; and even the 2019 result saw Labor win more votes than in 2005, 2010 or 2015.
In Labor, the left suffered the blows of a vengeful right. But we have recent evidence that things can be very, very different.
Always Red is a salutary reminder of this – a fascinating, funny, moving read, but above all an authoritative argument in favor of the capacity of the labor movement to change the world.