“I didn’t come to Scotland to criticise the SNP,” said Unite General Secretary Len McCluskey at a public meeting in Saltcoats a fortnight ago, organised by North Ayrshire and Arran Labour Party as part of its campaign to retain the seat for Katy Clark.
McCluskey was as good as his word.
He called for a vote for Labour. He called for a Labour government. He called for, if need be, a minority Labour government rather than one which entered pacts or a coalition with other parties. But he was not prepared to attack the SNP.
Unite’s Scottish edition of the “Unite Works” general election broadsheet is equally uncritical of the SNP.
Its eight pages have much to say about how bad the Lib-Dem coalition has been for working people. And a personal message from Len McCluskey warns Unite members not to be taken in by the “frauds and charlatans” of UKIP.
But the only criticism of the frauds and charlatans of the SNP in the broadsheet consists of eleven words contained in a statement from a Labour candidate: “The SNP would leave Scotland with a £4bn shortfall in public services.”
This is amazing stuff by any standards.
Unite has a policy of boycotting Israel, which it defines as “an apartheid state”. This is despite opposition to a boycott and the description of the country as “an apartheid state” from the Histadrut, the Israeli trade union movement.
So, Unite can boycott a country on the other side of the world, despite the opposition of that country’s trade union movement. But when the Unite General Secretary travels 400 miles north from union’s headquarters in London, he cannot bring himself to criticise the SNP!
And when the same union produces a Scottish edition of its general election broadsheet, it likewise omits – eleven words apart – any criticism of the SNP.
(But Len McCluskey is not alone. A fortnight before McCluskey’s meeting Owen Jones spoke at another election meeting organised by North Ayrshire and Arran Labour Party. He too has no qualms about holding forth on Israel and Palestine, and many other things as well.
Even though Jones is of Scottish descent – as he explained at some length in an introductory genealogical treatise – he too felt it “inappropriate” to make any comment about Scottish politics. Because, you see, he lives in London.
Where does this kind of nonsense end? Should an indigenous Scot exercise political self-censorship when in England? And how about the Welsh? Should they too keep quiet when in Scotland? Or, as inhabitants of the Celtic fringe, are they allowed to have a pop at the SNP?)
The failure of the Scottish election broadsheet and the union’s General Secretary to criticise the SNP is all the more amazing in that it is at odds with Unite’s own Political Strategy and its stated goal in this general election.
The Political Strategy, adopted in 2011, commits the union to “growing Unite membership in the Labour Party”, ending discrimination against working-class candidates by “securing the adoption of trade union candidates by Labour”, and “mobilising our members to vote, and then to vote Labour.”
The Political Strategy also commits Unite to “do everything in our power to organise and mobilise our membership, working people in general and the broadest possible forces to the cause of victory for a transformed Labour Party (in the general election).”
For reasons so obvious that they do not need to be spelt out, in Scotland such goals require challenging the SNP, and forcefully so.
And it’s not as if that’s a difficult thing to do.
The SNP government in Holyrood spends a lower proportion of its budget on health than even the Lib-Dem coalition. Its attacks on Further Education mean that working-class youth in Scotland are less likely to attend university than their counterparts in England. Its council-tax freeze has proved to be a massive tax cut for the rich.
The SNP has opposed re-regulation of bus services, continued with privatisation of the railways, and privatised half of Scotland’s ferry services. In power in Holyrood, where its MSPs have crossed PCS picket lines, it has not implemented a single redistributive policy.
In the referendum campaign it promised a cut in corporation tax for big business and no tax rises for the rich (all financed by infinite amounts of North Sea oil at a price of $113 a barrel). And in this general election campaign its fiscal policies amount to more austerity over a longer period of time.
When Blair carried out similar right-wing policies, Unite (or its predecessors) was rightly critical of him. When Jim Murphy, a consistent Blairite, stood for election as Scottish Labour Party leader, Unite rightly backed his opponent. When Miliband and Balls propose ‘austerity-lite’, Unite is rightly critical of them.
And all of those criticisms by Unite in general and by Len McCluskey in particular were public criticisms.
Surely it’s not too much to expect Unite’s General Secretary – in the run-up to what Unite itself describes as the “the most important general election in a generation” – to show the same willingness to publicly attack and expose the SNP’s right-wing charlatanism?
At the Campaign for Socialism AGM last February Neil Findlay MSP – backed by Unite in last year’s Scottish leadership contest – pointed out that the goal of the SNP is to destroy Labour in Scotland.
Not because the Murdoch-backed SNP does not find Labour left-wing enough, or because of Miliband’s disgraceful role in Falkirk. But because it needs to destroy Labour in order to implement its sole goal in life: its nationalist project of independence.
McCluskey’s failure to criticise the SNP and to campaign to persuade Unite members thinking of voting SNP to vote Labour instead gives the SNP free rein to carry out its own agenda of attacking the very principle of working-class political representation.
And the rise in support for the SNP is also a threat to bread-and-butter trade unionism.
Politics in parts of Scotland are already beginning to resemble Northern Ireland, where voting based on national identities and conflicting attitudes to a border squeezes out voting based on class identities and conflicting attitudes to ideologies of left and right.
But wherever the working class is divided and weakened by questions of national identity and a border, then trade unionism is divided and weakened as well. As the biggest union in Scotland, Unite is the union which can least afford to allow such divisions to become entrenched.
(And when the supposed ‘intellectual’ wing of the nationalist movement – the Bella Caledonia website – carries article likening the position of Scots in Britain to that of Elisabeth Fritzl (imprisoned and raped by her father over a period of 24 years) and to that of Jews in early Nazi Germany, the descent into absolute political irrationality has already commenced.)
Len McCluskey spoke at the meeting in Saltcoats to underline Unite’s support for Katy Clark. But local SNPers denounce her as a ‘Red Tory’.
Michael Connarty was given space in the Unite general election broadsheet to underline the union’s support for him. But on his way into last Friday’s rally in Glasgow with Ed Miliband, he was denounced by SNPers as a ‘Red Tory’ as well.
On the streets and on the doorsteps that’s the tenor of the SNP’s election campaign. Again, it’s surely not too much to expect Unite’s General Secretary to denounce full-throat the SNP’s ‘Red Tory’ campaign – especially given that ‘Red Tory’ Katy Clark was the Unite-backed candidate for Scottish Labour Party deputy leader?
The SNP is a party concerned about a flag. Trade unions are not concerned about the flag but the people who live under it. That’s the difference between separatism and solidarity, between nationalist division and workers’ unity, between the politics of nation and the politics of class.
Unite should be tough on nationalism, and tough on the causes of nationalism. And that means that in the few days left before Thursday’s general election its General Secretary should combine calls for a vote for Labour and demands on a future Labour government with explicit attacks on the SNP.