With all the press and media coverage (not to mention near hysteria) of what Len McCluskey said about the Olympics and the faux outrage from the Tories, Lib Dems, Ed Miliband and Harriet Harman (and others who should know better), here is the full transcript of the interview done with The Guardian, based on questions sent in via Twitter.
The Guardian has led its coverage on the line about Olympics but this was just one part of a wide ranging interview in which Len McCluskey expresses ordinary people’s frustration with what the government is doing. This included: Cuts and the NHS bill; the need for an alternative to cuts; Len countered the argument for a continued public sector pay freeze; Government moves to curb employment rights could lead to unions being forced to operate outside the law if what is currently lawful is made unlawful and the need for parliament to become more representative and for there to be more working class MPs
Q: What is happening with Unite’s fight against the government’s plans for public sector pensions?
A: It’s a very fluid situation. As far as Unite is concerned, in the three schemes that we are involved in, the civil service scheme, the government scheme and the health sector scheme, we haven’t signed up to the heads of agreement, although we are still in discussions in all three of the schemes. There’s not a day goes by when something doesn’t alter or change. At the moment our members in the civil service scheme and the health scheme are particularly angry and want to continue the campaign. Our local government membership are assessing the various movements that are being made in the negotiations. And of course we are in liaison with other unions.
Q: Some of those unions have already committed themselves to another day of action on 28 March. Will that go ahead?
A: I think there’s a likelihood that there will be further action.
Q: Involving Unite?
A: Yes, absolutely. I think it will be ongoing. And it won’t be short-term. It will drag on and on. And it will involve all forms of different protest and action. There will be an examination of different forms of industrial action, whether we target specific key workers. I think it will also involve single-day actions, but it will embrace protests, civil disobedience.
Q: One of the comments I got on the blog I posted inviting readers to suggest questions was about strike action during the Olympics. [It was from Imageark.] Is that something you have talked about?
A: Absolutely, yes. The attacks that are being launched on public-sector workers at the moment are so deep and ideological that the idea the world should arrive in London and have these wonderful Olympic Games as though everything is nice and rosy in the garden is unthinkable. Our very way of life is being attacked. By then this crazy Health and Social Care Bill may have been passed. So we are looking at the privatisation of our National Health Service. I believe the unions, and the general community, have got every right to be out protesting. If the Olympics provide us with an opportunity, then that’s exactly one that we should be looking at.
Q: Where could your members disrupt the Olympics? Have you got as far as thinking about that?
A: Not in the specifics, although, moving away from the public sector for a moment, our London bus members are desperately engaged in a battle to bring some stability into what is a crucial lifeline within this fantastic capital city of ours and they are not making progress – not being helped, of course, by the mayor, who seems oblivious to the wishes of ordinary working people. So they will be examining what leverage points we have, and the Olympics will clearly come into play.Now nobody has made any decisions yet and, of course, it would be nice if we were able not to disrupt such a prestigious event as the Olympics. But by the same token. people have to understand that we are fighting for our heritage here. Our parents and our grandparents, having defeated fascism in Europe, came back determined to build a land fit for heroes. They gave us the welfare state, the National Health Service, universal education. All of that is being attacked. I, for one, am not prepared to stand by and have my children or grandchildren say to me: “What did you do when this was being taken away from us?” When you say what can we do, and the likes of the Olympics, I’m calling upon the general public to engage in civil disobedience.
Q: What do you mean by that?
A: All forms of civil disobedience, within the law.
Q: Are you specifically talking about the Olympics? Or are you making a general point.
A: I’m making a general point. But you raise the Olympics because it’s a focal point. And if there is a protest, then the purpose of protest is to bring your grievances to the attention of as many people as possible.
Q: Before you were elected general secretary in 2010, you said in an interview in the New Statesman that you wanted unions and Labour MPs to reclaim the Labour party “right up from the roots” and make it “our party again”. What have you done since your election to make that happen?
A: Within Unite we have been planning our political strategy, which is to have a common narrative with other unions and other like-minded people to reclaim the Labour party for our values, the values of decency, fairness, justice and equality. We intend to make certain that we try to persuade thousands and thousands of our activists to rejoin the Labour party, to play a role within the constituency Labour parties, and make certain that people who are elected speak with our values.I’m interested in David Miliband’s recent article where he suggested that the professions were under-represented in the parliamentary Labour party. [Miliband said: “We have a lot to be concerned about … the sociology of our representation at Westminster so that, for example, the professions are under-represented in the parliamentary Labour party.”] I nearly fell off my chair when I read it. The reality is that, quite disgracefully, 4% of the parliamentary Labour party are from manual labour backgrounds. What we intend to do is get our members better represented by people who understand the problems that they face. So we have set about putting together our policies, which will be implemented in a way that will make certain that the Labour party is once again the party of working people. I don’t think it’s a working-class party any more.
Q: Unite has always lobbied for its own candidates in selection battles. What are you doing differently, or can you do differently, to address this working-class representation issue?
A: First of all, we can be a lot more discerning about Unite candidates. We’ve been far too lax in allowing individuals to become Unite candidates who have got no connection whatsoever with trade union values. Remember, Tony Blair was a member of my union. So was Gordon Brown. And yet, after 13 years of a Labour government, we still have the worst labour laws in the whole of Europe. I could give you a list of others.
Q: Go on …
A: Well, David Miliband for one. I’m almost certain he is.
Q: You’re not going to throw him out, are you?
A: No, of course not. The point I’m trying to make is I don’t believe the way we’ve done things in the past has been the correct way. We have got something like 102 Labour MPs who are Unite members. Whether all those 102 actually believe in Unite’s philosophy and policies I very much doubt. And so we are going to be far more discerning on who we support.
Q: You’re meeting Labour MPs tonight and it’s been reported that you are going to tell them that Unite, unlike the GMB, won’t be having a debate on whether to cut its links with Labour. Why not?
A: I am meeting MPs tonight to exchange views with them. The question of breaking the link is not something that’s on our agenda at all. This is our party.
Q: On the blog I posted inviting questions, there were a lot of comments from people [like Souter and luath and bluebeth] who said you should break the link. A typical one was this, from Mark Wright: “Your union still funds a capitalist Labour party which accepts the need for cuts and wishes to continue attacking ordinary working people.” What do you say to people like that?
A: I understand. I absolutely understand their frustration. It is legitimate for people to question our link with the Labour party. What I would say is the reason the Labour party is in existence is because the trade unions gave birth to it. Why did we do that? We did that at the beginning of the last century because men and women like me said we’re winning on the industrial front but we’ve got no voice in parliament. The Labour party was created to give a voice in parliament to organised labour.Your readers quite rightly flag up the question, is the Labour party now representative of the voice of organised labour? There must be a huge question mark over that. That’s something Ed Miliband has to grapple with. We’re in a period now where I’m not interested in being the relative who they want to hide away in the attic. People need to be proud of the link with trade unions.Our position at the moment is that we don’t believe the Labour party is a dead duck. We believe Ed Miliband has offered a fresh start because he was the one that said this slavish adherence to market forces for the last 30 years since the Thatcher/Reagan axis has simply not worked.
Q: The GMB has said it is going to address the Labour link at its conference. Do you think that’s helpful?
A: I understand the frustration of the GMB. Indeed, it’s the frustration that we share together. The problem you have in moving away from affiliation to the Labour party is what do you do. Everybody agrees that we need a voice in parliament. If somebody makes a decision that that voice is not the Labour party, they’ve got to come up with an alternative.
Q: Apart from candidate selection, what else can Unite do to exercise its influence more within Labour?
A: There are ways for us to be more active in the constituency Labour parties, in the regional Labour parties, so that at annual Labour party conferences there isn’t this divide between the constituencies and the trade unions, and the leadership of our party can’t play one off against another.
Q: Where do you stand on the unions having 50% of the votes at Labour conference? If you become more active through constituency parties, doesn’t that create a case for saying you should not have 50% of the vote?
A: It does. It absolutely does if we become much more active in the constituencies. What I want is a Labour party that is vibrant and that has at its roots our values. If we were successful in getting more of our activists involved in grassroots constituency Labour parties, then the argument about 50% block votes would become less relevant. That’s what I’m looking to do. I’m not looking to hold on to a block vote for the sake of it.
Q: Unite is Labour’s largest donor. Do you feel positive and proud about that, or do you think it would be healthy for the party if they had more donors and you didn’t have to give quite so much money?
A: We’re the largest donor because we’re the largest union and we have the largest number of members paying the political levy. I see nothing wrong with that. The trade union movement offer Labour a grounding, an anchor, to keep them locked into the ordinary values of ordinary working people. We’re proud of that.Of course, we want to make certain that our members’ money is spent in a proper fashion. That’s why we want our political voice to fight against whatever the Tories are up to. Remember, the Tories see the trade union movement as a bad thing because we are the only opposition to them riding roughshod over working people.The one thing I would say, and I would caution this government – if they make these attacks against us, trying to limit the type of strike action, trying to attack trade union facilities, trying to restrict the laws even further, if they push us outside the law, they are going to have to live with the consequences of that. Because if we need to break the law in order to defend what are our basic human rights – right of association – then we will do that.
Q: Do you see any prospect of that at the moment?
A: You see it all the time. They are attacking us on all kinds of areas: employment tribunals, TUPE regulations, the agriculture wages board has been eliminated, the health and safety culture is being attacked as though it’s something wrong. Nobody recognises that, since it was introduced in the 1970s, it has saved literally tens of thousands of lives. All these attacks are being lined up by the government. We may even see something in the Queen’s speech.
Q: Earlier you were talking about civil disobedience, and protest within the law. Now you are saying that if you get to a point where protest within the law doesn’t work, you might have to have protest outside the law. What do you mean by that?
A: I think that’s a danger the government have to weigh up. At the moment the legal requirements to conduct a legal industrial dispute are unbelievable. We are the only workers in the whole of Europe who are subjected to these type of restrictions. And how can that be right? The very nation that gave Europe the freedoms they currently have after the war – how is it right that British workers don’t have the same rights as German workers and Italian workers and Spanish and French and the rest of them?
Q: Do you mean that what used to be lawful will be unlawful? Or are you talking about more radical or extreme forms of industrial action?
A: I’m talking about what might have been lawful becomes unlawful. I’m talking about different forms of action and protest, which we are already examining and looking at. Direct action is a fantastic thing. It is becoming the hallmark of this world that we are living in: people coming out and taking direct action. Look at UK Uncut.
Q: But these aren’t things that the union movement has particularly been involved in.
A: We’ve linked up with UK Uncut as a union. I’m amazed and delighted at the type of action we’ve seen from the students. We’ve got all these companies not paying taxes, and UK Uncut – a bunch of young people – said this is ridiculous, we are going to go and protest. Now they have a network where they can bring it about at the snap of a finger.
Q: So why don’t you do that on 28 March instead of having a march in London?
A: Well, we might do. We might do anything. I’m saying at the moment nothing should be ruled in and nothing should be ruled out. These are extraordinary times that we are entering into.
Q: There has been a lot of talk about Unite merging with the PCS union. What is the position?
A: Obviously this is one of these issues that is running around the movement and the media at great pace. There are no formal negotiations with PCS, or any other union for that matter. We’ve signed an accord with PCS to work more closely with them. But we have those type of agreements with a number of unions.
Q: Mark Serwotka, the PCS general secretary, told the Financial Times last month that he wants an “ever closer developing relationship” with Unite. Do you want an ever closer developing relationship with PCS?
A: Absolutely. I want an ever closer developing relationship with a whole host of unions. We already have a very close working relationship with Unison and the GMB and we have our close friendship with sister unions like the RMT and FBU and the CWU, all like-minded, fighting-back unions.
Q: Is it likely that, over time, that will result in merger? Or that it won’t result in a merger?
A: To be honest, quite seriously, there’s no way of telling that. I’ve been around a long, long time. I’ve been around when there have been close working relationships between unions, there have been formal negotiations with unions, there have been working parties set up where it appeared only Is needed to be dotted and Ts needed to be crossed, and yet it did not happen.
Q: One of the questions on the blog came from someone [Spectropoetix] who wanted to know how you see the future for trade unions. He or she said there were a number of possible models: service, organising, social movement, and rank-and-file.
A: Rank-and-file organisations, that’s what trade unions are. We represent people at work. Of course, we’ve extended now our membership to community membership. This is a new phenomenon in the trade union movement. We’ve only just launched it and already we have got thousands of people who have joined up. We can see this being 200,000 in a short space of time. What we are saying is that we want to connect with the communities in which our members live. We want to say to those communities who haven’t got a voice at the moment, we’ll give them an opportunity to belong to our family so that we can link together our members who are in work and the communities where they live.
Q: What do you think of Ed Miliband as Labour leader? Where has he done well and where has he not done well?
A: Well, he’s survived. When you take over the Labour party, especially after a general election defeat, it’s not the easiest thing to do, especially when there were very strong, powerful forces in the Labour party who were bitter that they didn’t get their man. They wanted David, not Ed. That was a difficult time for him. He was always going to have to go through this period of trying to steady the ship. To be fair to him, he’s done that. I always argued that he needed to be given a chance to develop this radical alternative.I think now we are getting to the stage where he needs to start to put a lot more meat on the bone. He recently made some very good points about predatory capitalism and the need to have responsible capitalism, if there is such a thing. That kind of challenge is now something he needs to be stronger on. And that was why my article in the Guardian to him wasn’t attacking him. It was flagging up to him the dangers that he was being pulled back into the austerity arena by New Labour.If he can demonstrate and put together policies that show he’s on the side of ordinary working people, he will win. He should worry less – and so should Ed Balls worry less – about this fiscal credibility that they are desperate to pin all over them. Who are they trying to get this credibility off? The Times? The chattering classes?
Q: It’s the voters, isn’t it?
A: I don’t believe it is. I believe that Labour’s credibility will come when ordinary voters see that they are on their side, see that they are putting forward alternatives to the fear and the misery and the gloom and the despair that is represented by this coalition government, and indeed represented by most governments throughout the western world at the moment. It’s interesting that Obama has now stood out against the austerity programme and, lo and behold, we’ve got growth in the States. That’s what we need. We need Ed Balls and Ed Miliband not saying that they agree with pay restraint. What kind of message is that?
Q: On pay restraint, you mentioned this in your recent Guardian article. You suggested you didn’t like Labour accepting the case for cutting pay to save jobs. But aren’t there times when this will be an acceptable trade-off to make?
A: Of course. We do it every single week. That’s what we do. But you do that through negotiation and discussion. It happens in the private sector, it happens in the public sector all the time.
Q: But isn’t that just what Ed Balls was saying?
A: No he wasn’t. Ed Balls was buying into the government’s pay restraint. It’s not like the government have turned round and said we’re going to have pay restraint, it’s going to save us £1bn and we’re going to take that £1bn and create 100,000 apprenticeships for young people. They are not saying that. The government’s position is restraint on public sector workers so that they can pay off the debt. Absolutely crazy.What Ed Balls did – quite disgracefully, in my opinion, and self-indulgent to the extreme, trying to demonstrate to everybody that he was a real Keynesian and that Keynes was a tough guy – he sided with the government. And so this wasn’t about trading off jobs for pay restraint.If you want to trade off jobs for pay restraint, what Ed Balls and Ed Miliband could have easily said is these are difficult times and workers are worried about jobs more than anything and we would urge the trade unions and the employers to sit down together and work out ways and means, with jobs as a priority. There would have been nothing wrong with him saying that. Not send a message out that the government’s austerity programme is right and we agree with pay restraint, because that kicks into the private sector as well. All the private sector employers are rubbing their hands and saying: “That will do us – we’ll try and implement pay freezes.” Extraordinary mistake. Stupid own goal for Ed Balls and Ed Miliband to make. I hope they’ve learnt their lesson. I hope they can concentrate on putting forward something that is radical and offers hope.
Q: On Desert Island Discs John Prescott was asked if he had any advice for Ed Miliband. Prescott said wear a jacket and stop asking people what they think, because you don’t sound like a leader that way. Have you got any advice for Miliband that you can crystallise like that?
A: Ed should follow his beliefs. He’s a decent man, with decent values, and he should follow them. He needs to be strong enough to plough through, to reject the siren voices that might try to take him back into a discredited arena and seek to construct this radical alternative. If he does that correctly, he will be the next prime minister. If he fails to grasp that opportunity – footnote in history.