The placing of the Falkirk West CLP into administrative measures is the latest battle in what George Eaton at the New Statesman describes as “a war” between UNITE the union, and the Labour Party.
In fact the Blairites in the party, are engaged in a concerted campaign to challenge trade union influence more generally. This became apparent in the synthetic “outrage” that greated the failure of Anne Fairweather to reach the long list of prospective Labour candidates for the 2014 European election.
Although Anne was apparently a hard working candidate in the 2009 election, she is seen as politically unacceptable to a large section of Labour’s electoral support as she used to be Head of Public Policy for REC, the trade association for recruitment agencies, and in that capacity had lobbied against extensions of employment rights to Agency workers, both in the UK (PDF) and in Brussels. Given a strong field of candidates no one individual should have a sense of entitlement, and a candidate who had been aligned with lobbyists for deregulation in the employment market should not be surprised if she is seen by many as outside the mainstream of Labour Party values. Anne left the employment of the REC in 2010.
In Falkirk West, the NEC seems to have concluded following an investigation that UNITE has acted inappropriatly. According to the centre-right commentator, Atul Hatwal:
in the last three months of 2012, the membership of Falkirk West CLP increased by over half – from 200 members, it grew by 130 to 330. These weren’t members attracted by the magic of Arnie Graf’s community organising, or an inspirational Ed Miliband speech. They were shipped in, en masse, by Unite. In October last year, Labour party HQ started to receive packs of membership forms accompanied by a single cheque, cut by the union, to pay for all of the members’ annual subscriptions.
Chapter 2 Clause II (Membership Procedures) section 1 of the Labour Party Rules … specifically permits affiliated organisations to sign up their levy payers (who are of course already affiliated members of the party) as individual members:
“Members of affiliated organisations not already members who have paid the political levy or political subscriptions to the affiliated organisation for a period of at least 12 months may be recruited into membership of the party via that affiliated organisation as registered members.”
The implication of this clause appears to me to be that it is in accordance with the rules for a cheque to come from the union for their initial subscriptions. Once upon a time union levy payers were indirectly involved in the selection process through their GC representatives. I fail to see why affiliated members should not now be directly involved in the selection through this process.
It would, under the rules, be different – with good reason – if the people concerned were “unwilling to pay their own subscriptions”, “ineligible for that category of membership”, if they are not registered to vote at their stated addresses or if this was an attempt “to recruit members who do not live at the claimed addresses in an attempt to manipulate local party meetings or the outcome of party ballots”.
Despite the lurid commentary from Atul, it would not seem that UNITE have actually broken the rules; and as Pat Rafferty UNITE’s Scottish regional secretary observes:
At all times during the process for selection of a Labour party candidate for Falkirk West our conduct has been consistent with the rules of the party. There have never been any procedural abuses by Unite and people joining the Labour party are local residents living in the Falkirk West constituency.
Our approach is clear, open and locally determined – indeed it began to take shape in Falkirk long before any candidate declared, because local members wanted the best for their town – not because of some sinister scheme rolled out by a kingmaker from behind a desk in London, but genuinely ‘Made in Scotland’.
Our aim is to help high calibre working people find their way to Westminster or Holyrood so that they can play their part in delivering the changed politics ordinary people in our nation so desperately need.
We work with our members to encourage support for candidates who share Unite’s vision for the people of Scotland. Why wouldn’t we?
Indeed, UNITE’s favoured candidate in Falkirk is not some swivel-eyed fanatic, but Karie Murphy, the office manager of the highly respected MP, Tom Watson. Supporting Karie is a sensible and proportionate position for an affiliate, in accordance with the party’s rules.
As a privately funded organisation within the Labour party, Progress warrants more scrutiny. It doesn’t quite possess a central command structure, but its leadership is never backwards in staking out positions on most areas of policy and party reform…. And as Jim Murphy succinctly observed at the recent, invitation-only, progress weekend conference, the big mistake of new labour – a key component of this being Progressactivists – was to define itself against the party.
Unlike a trade union, the governance, decision making processes and funding of Progress are opaque; which is why I moved a successful motion at 2012 GMB Congress calling on the union to investigate Progress. The motion was not particularly confrontational, and resolved to:
work to maintain unity within the Labour Party, but that the Labour Party can only succeed when we promote policies that benefit working people….. [and] that the national political officer should monitor the factional activity of Progress, and report to the CEC with recommendations.”
The reason that the motion was expressed in terms of maintaining unity within the party is that Labour can only succeed electorally as a coalitional party, and one of the problems with Progress is the narrow vision it promotes of what the Labour Party is and should be.
What I want is for Labour to win the next election, and to win it by reinvigorating its connection with the aspirations of working people, with progressive intellectuals and that part of the managerial and professional classes who have a social conscience. Of course there should be no going back to the politics of 1974 nor 1983; but equally there should be no going back to the politics of 1997, of wheezes, spin and triangulation. Things have changed since then, and in so far as Progress is an obstacle to recognising the need for Labour to change accordingly then they need to be opposed. They have a disproportionate grip on the party organisation, and this also needs to be addressed.
But equally, in seeking to correct the distortion that Progress and the Blairites bring into the party, we need to ensure that the unions and the centre-left don’t also push the party into a damaging factional battle. We want the whole party to succeed, at the same time as we wish to persuade Labour to pursue a more radical economic and social policy agenda.
If UNITE really did sign up over 100 members in Falkirk West, then that was likely to be seen as an attempt to bounce the selection outside the spirit of the rules. It would have been more effective to have recruited 10 or 20 UNITE activists to the party, who became involved in the regular routine of party life, and could call upon support from other UNITE members in campaigning for the party. That would have given them real and deserved influence.
As Phil points out:
But as with all stitch-ups, I don’t know what I find most offensive.The attempted subversion of the democratic selection process (such as it is), or the contempt shown the membership by organising it in such a cack-handed, outrageous, and blatantly clumsy manner as per Falkirk. It’s between fulminating against abuses of process, and wishing our anonymous would-be fixer be sentenced to a barely ventilated basement with only Old Ted’s Problems of Entrism and John Golding’s Hammer of the Left for company.
The thing is this whole episode was entirely unnecessary. The Labour Party isn’t so much a basket case that trade union-friendly candidates, such as Sister Murphy, have to rely on a phalanx of paid-for applications landing on the membership officer’s desk. What Unite and other trade unions need to do is engage properlywith the party.
I obviously have no problem with trade unions encouraging members to join the party, and in assisting the process by subsidising their membership subscriptions for an initial period, but Phil is right that this requires real engagement. There need to be a note of caution here, trade union activists already have a round of meetings, case work, and other activity parallel to the Labour Party’s structures; and it is unreasonable to expect them to carry a double work load. That is why the affiliate relationship works, recognising that trade unions and the Labour Party share values and goals, and that their work can be complementary. When approached constructively, the roots of trade unions in the daily lives and work experiences of millions of ordinary working people can be seen as an asset by the Labour Party; and the trade unions have their own structures and decision making processes, and the party should understand that union delegates are democratically empowered to speak for the union’s membership.
But if the unions want to be listened to, we also need to exercise some discretion. In this area Len McClusley does seem to have what we might call a “diplomacy deficit”. His New Statesman interview criticising Liam Byrne, Douglas Alexander and Jim Murphy would have made it impossible for Ed Miliband to demote any of those front bench spokespersons; even had Ed been minded to. Language from Len about Ed Miliband being “swept into the dustbin of history” hardly suggests a desire for real dialogue, and will have put many party members on the defensive; and suggests that Len McCluskey is really addressing another audience outside the Labour Party.
The political involvement by the unions with the Labour Party is based upon an overlap of shared values, but it is also a pragmatic and living relationship. During the Blair era the unions were insufficiently assertive, and had the party listened to the unions, on the Iraq war, on PFI, housing, employment rights and on issues like Remploy, not only would Britain be a better place, but the party would be in an electorally more advantageous position.
The need for the unions to become more assertive is not “special interest” pleading, it is in the best interests of the whole party and of the country. But we need to ensure that we do so in a way that we win over and not alienate the middle ground in the party.