Len McCluskey compares himself to Mandela and Gandhi

Self-righteous trade union firebrand Len McCluskey this week compared himself to those giants of freedom, Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi. Was he justified in drawing parallels with men who single-handedly changed the course of their nations’ histories? Read LEO McKINSTRY’s analysis of their lives and achievements, and decide for yourself ...


MANDELA: Born in 1918 in the village of Mvezo in South Africa’s Cape Province, the son of the village chief and counsellor to the tribal king. His childhood home was a beehive-shaped mud hut with a floor made of crushed anthills. Much of his time as a boy was spent working as a cattleherd.

Both his parents were illiterate but when he was seven his mother, a devout Christian, sent him to a Methodist mission school based in a single room. His secondary education was also in a Methodist school.

GANDHI: Born in 1869 in the British-ruled state of Porbandar, where his father was the chief minister.

Like Mandela, Gandhi had a devout mother who prayed and fasted regularly. When he was five, the family moved to the smaller state of Rajkot, his father again serving as a senior administrator. Mahatma entered the local school when he was nine, though he was only an average student and was plagued by shyness.

McCLUSKEY: Born in Liverpool in 1950, the son of a painter and decorator, also called Len, who had worked in the docks.

Living in a two-up, two-down redbrick terrace house, he had modest but contented upbringing, though he inherited some of his mother Peggy’s intense political partisanship. ‘She would rather bite off her own arm than vote Tory,’ it was said of her.

Len went to the Cardinal Godfrey state high school in Anfield.


MANDELA: Throughout his youth, Mandela’s experiences of the ever-tightening apartheid regime fuelled his involvement in the African National Congress, which was campaigning against colonial rule.

He formally joined the movement in 1943 while studying law at the University of Witwatersrand, where he was the only black student. During the Fifties, when he working as a lawyer, his involvement with radical activism deepened, leading to frequent harassment by the state. In 1956 he was even arrested for treason, though the charges were dropped.

GANDHI: Like Mandela, Gandhi became a law student after leaving school. In a bold move for someone so shy, he left India in 1888 to qualify at the London Bar. He then moved to South Africa in 1893, where his legal work was matched by his high-profile involvement with the early civil rights movement, inspired by his anger at racial discrimination.

On his return to India during World War I, his mounting fame put him at the forefront of the Congress Party, campaigning for Indian self-rule.

McCLUSKEY: He began work in the Liverpool docks on leaving school, but as a clerical worker rather than a docker. Becoming a shop steward in 1968 in the Transport and General Workers’ Union — the forerunner of Unite — he was soon displaying his militancy.

‘I was very much a child of the Sixties. Revolution was in the air,’ he once said. His fondness for confrontation drove him up the union hierarchy, making him a Merseyside regional officer of the TGWU in 1979, a post which he used to flirt with the notoriously extreme Militant Tendency.

Through the African National Congress (ANC), Mandela fought against a system built entirely on bigotry, fuelled by vicious human rights abuses and totalitarian repression

Through the African National Congress (ANC), Mandela fought against a system built entirely on bigotry, fuelled by vicious human rights abuses and totalitarian repression


MANDELA: Through the African National Congress (ANC), he fought against a system built entirely on bigotry, fuelled by vicious human rights abuses and totalitarian repression.

At first Mandela tried to cling to the Gandhi doctrine of non-violence, but from the late Fifties he decided this approach could not succeed because of the racist intransigence of the South African government, as epitomised by the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, when 69 anti-apartheid demonstrators were killed by police.

The return of violence, he felt, was the only answer — and indeed he set up the ANC’s military wing, which carried out bomb attacks in South Africa against government installations.

GANDHI: British rule in India was nothing like the monstrous autocracy of South Africa. But still, it was undemocratic, unrepresentative and unsustainable.

Gandhi’s ultimately successful campaign against the empire was based not on terrorist insurgency but on defiance, reflected in his campaign for a boycott of British goods and his refusal to pay a tax on salt levied by the Government, which had a monopoly in its manufacture.

McCLUSKEY: The self-styled warrior against oppression has nothing like the genuine abuses of imperialism and racism to fight against. In fact, he is really the defender of privilege. His battles have largely consisted of lobbying for already well-rewarded workers, including British Airways cabin crew and public employees who already enjoy higher pay, shorter hours, longer holidays and better pensions than most workers in the private sector.


MANDELA: Bravery in the face of adversity defined Mandela. When he was put on trial on terrorism charges involving sabotage in 1964, he declared that he was ‘prepared to die’ for the ‘ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony’.

He was sentenced to 27 years’ imprisonment on Robben Island, where he was confined to a small cell with the floor as his bed and a bucket as his lavatory. Radios and books were banned, and he was allowed one visitor a year. At the start of his imprisonment he had to undertake hard labour, hammering stones into gravel.

GANDHI: During his civil disobedience campaigns in South Africa and India, he was imprisoned by the authorities 13 times.

Solitary confinement and hard labour often

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