Len McCluskey’s tell-all interview in last week’s Jewish News might have shed some light on the man who leads one of Britain’s largest trade unions, but actions speak louder than words – and Unite has much to do.
Trade unions are an integral part of the party, part of the broad movement of labour organisations including Poale Zion (now JLM), that comprised the founding membership of the modern Labour Party. Because of this important and historic link, their role inside the Labour Party remains. Their block vote on conference floor can force the outcome of a vote on policy, and their representation on Labour’s ruling NEC is guaranteed.
Decisions made by Unite, as one of the biggest political powers inside the Labour Party, reverberate across the party’s machinery. In the past few years it has not shied away from controversy.
Since it was created from the merger of two large unions, the TGWU and Amicus, Unite has consistently reaffirmed its support for blanket boycott, divestment and sanctions of Israel at its policy conferences, and remains a big supporter of campaigns that exacerbate the divide between Israelis and Palestinians, rather than those who work to build peace by bringing communities together.
It was Unite’s then-political director and NEC representative who suggested Jan Royall’s links to LFI ruled her out of being able to investigate allegations of anti-Semitism at Oxford University Labour Club. The Labour Party conference came close to being cancelled in 2016 after Labour’s NEC, at the behest of Unite’s explicit boycott of G4S, voted to cancel the long-standing conference security deal.
Of the three panel members who heard Ken Livingstone’s case, found him guilty, yet let him off with a slap on the wrist, two were formal nominees of Unite on the party’s disciplinary committee.
McCluskey’s intervention at the Labour Party conference, that he hadn’t ever seen anti-Semitism inside the party and that it was being weaponised to attack Jeremy Corbyn, wasn’t just an innocuous personal observation. It took place at the height of a painful debate for Jewish Labour activists who hadn’t just seen anti-Semitism but often had been on the receiving end and trying to do something.
So when in the very same interview McCluskey’s eyes went ‘glazing over’ at the mention of the Jewish Labour Movement, for our supposed-conservative approach to critiquing Netanyahu, it came as no great surprise.
Critiquing the actions of the Israeli government isn’t hard. JLM members alongside our sister parties Havoda and Meretz do it all the time. Perhaps the real reason is JLM and Unite have been on different sides of the debate over anti-Semitism inside the Labour movement.
For JLM, the Rubicon of Israel’s existence will never be crossed, and we won’t shy away from calling out anti-Semitism, however much it is disguised under the guise of anti-Zionism.
By giving us the cold shoulder, McCluskey sets a dangerous precedent. It is not up to Unite to determine between good Jews, with views they agree with and who are worthy of working with, or bad Jews, with whom they disagree and should be avoided.
As Unite is the recognised union of faith workers, perhaps McCluskey ought to talk to the many rabbis in its membership for a lesson in contemporary British Jewish identity, and the faith, language, heritage, history and family ties which bond the community to Israel.
The Labour Party has much to do to repair its relationship with the Jewish community. Unite has a role to play too. But if it is only willing to entertain people it agrees with, things will get far worse before they get better.