“‘Everything we do as citizens is determined by politics; and therefore everything unions do is determined by politics’, Len McCluskey wrote in his first book, a tract on trade unionism published shortly after the 2019 UK general election. Some eighteen months later, in her victorious election manifesto to succeed him as general secretary of Unite the Union, Sharon Graham declared that ‘the politics has failed.’ Her campaign insisted on the failure of Unite’s political project within the Labour Party. Any judgement of McCluskey’s record would seem to rest on what one makes of that indictment. As if to prove this point, McCluskey’s memoir, Always Red, released last month to coincide with the end of his decade-long tenure at the helm of Britain’s most formidable trade union, is dominated by a 180-page narration of his involvement in Westminster politics since 2011. The account of Corbynism therein is one of the most politically astute to date – no surprise given the editorial involvement of Alex Nunns, one of Corbyn’s most impressive former staffers and a historian of the project’s early stages.

When McCluskey began work as a planman on Liverpool’s docks in 1968, post-war trade union power was at its height. ‘You join the union here, son’ was the greeting at the dockland gate. McCluskey’s arrival as a 19-year-old member of the Transport and General Workers Union (T&G) came the same year as the election of International Brigadier Jack Jones as its general secretary, and through the early 1970s the union ‘reached the apogee of its influence on British life’, according to Andrew Murray, McCluskey’s chief of staff and official chronicler of the union’s history. By 1969, the T&G had 1.5 million members. It added 250,000 more in the following three years and hit the 2 million landmark in 1977. At this summit it was, in Murray’s telling, ‘the most powerful democratic working-class organisation in Britain’s history.’ Virtually all of McCluskey’s formative experiences, fondly recounted in the book, were in this ‘heroic period; a time when class solidarity…was something we lived and breathed.’”

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