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The Blairite plot to discredit unions in general and Len McCluskey in particular

Targetting Len McCluskeyThe contents of the secret report into what happened in Falkirk have now been revealed. Seumas Milne in the Guardian comments that “given the thin gruel offered up by way of evidence” it’s not hard to see why it hasn’t been published. Nevertheless, the report does find that Unite is not directly responsible for what took place, which makes the direct attack by Ed Miliband on Len McCluskey even harder to understand (“Len McCluskey should be facing up to his responsibilities. He should not be defending the machine politics involving bad practice and malpractice that went on there, he should be facing up to it“). And the paucity of evidence of “serious wrongdoing” makes it even harder to understand now why the matter was reported to the Police than when we previously commented, unless it was a deliberate attempt to escalate the conflict still further to justify a fundamental reform of the party-union relationship. 

According to Seumas Milne:

The most significant allegations are that a handful of members were signed up without their knowledge (by family members), and that “there are discrepancies in the signatures” of four others (suggesting some may have been forged).

It isn’t right to sign up family members to a political party without their knowledge but it undoubtedly happens in every winnable constituency in the country in every party. It clearly isn’t what Unite intended, and you can’t expect Unite’s leaders to have been aware that it happened.

Nor is it right to “forge” signatures but, if the person concerned wanted and intended to join the party, it isn’t “serious wrongdoing” . This is the action of one or two individuals rather than Unite and it certainly isn’t something to waste police time over.

So we can now see why Unite centrally had no idea what they had done wrong. And what was done wrong certainly doesn’t justify the biggest-ever shake up of the party-union relationship by a Labour leader. And yet some people on the right of the party are still claiming:

For all the talk of democracy and the new politics, this was only ever about dealing with the fall-out from Falkirk.

That is nonsense. I was at the Progress annual conference at Congress House in London on 11 May. An afternoon workshop entitled “How do we get a parliament that looks more like Britain?” had a constructive debate about the lack of working class MPs whose participants had included our own Michael Meacher and Steve Hart, then Unite’s political director, but, by the day’s end, that all fell apart.

In the final plenary of the conference, following a question from blogger Emma Burnell about “what unites Progress and Unite” Peter Mandelson chose to make a direct attack on Unite instead. “Too many” selections for European of Westminster parliament candidates were being put in the hands of “one union at worst, a couple of unions at best, orchestrated by a cabal of NEC members,” he said. In response to union pressure for more working class candidates, he said it was it was wrong to conflate trade unionists and the working classes and mocked the selection of trade union officials.

Mandelson also specifically mentioned the Falkirk selection (in which Progress was backing Gregor Poynton) as well as the selection of MEP candidates (in which Progress was backing candidates everywhere). Whilst a row about the European selection process had been rumbling on for several weeks by then (it started here and Left Futures’ contribution is here) and complaints about the Falkirk selection process had been reported in the Scottish press since March 2013, Falkirk had not until then been mentioned in the English press. However, the following day a lengthy piece by Patrick Wintour appeared on the Guardian website suggesting that a detailed  briefing had been provided by Peter Mandelson or Progress or both, and that the matter had not been mentioned by accident.

Wintour deals at length with the Falkirk selection even though at that point the row was mainly about the proposal to have an all-women shortlist (which would exclude the Progress candidate) and the accompanying accusations of manipulation (which does indeed happen by all sections of the movement and all factions in almost all selections). Although the party had decided to tighten up the procedures by asking a number of recent applicants including many of those recruited by Unite, to complete direct debit mandates, the issues raised in the recent secret report had not arisen.

Wintour also quotes from a number of Unite executive minutes and reports (not normally in the public domain) about the implementation of the Unite political strategy and of the sort later leaked to Guido Fawkes. He also raises other selections including that in Ilford North where Unite was backing an activist from its London taxi section and Progress was backing local councillor and former leading Labour student, Wes Streeting.

From then on, interventions by Blairites associated with Progress continued, especially after the Labour executive’s organisation committee in mid-May not only endorsed an all-women shortlist for Falkirk (once the membership issues had been resolved) and the shortlists for the European selections, but also revised the selections procedure to reintroduce nominations. This increased the involvement of party members and was opposed by Progress (which they pretended was as a result of the length of the process).

The statements on Falkirk and Unite’s political strategy of Blairite stalwarts such as Mandelson, Blunkett and Reid reached its crescendo in the last two weeks, assisted by the private press briefings of shadow cabinet members, notably Douglas Alexander and Jim Murphy. The leak of Unite documents to Guido Fawkes which are likely to have come from the same sources as those provided to Patrick Wintour was guaranteed to fuel Tory pressure on Ed Miliband (as well as risking damage to Labour’s public image). And the campaign had clearly started before any of the issues highlighted in Labour’s secret report had come to light.

There is no secret that the Blairites have always wanted to end the union link. Tony Blair repeated yesterday that reform of Labour’s relationship with the unions as “long overdue”, and said he should have enacted such reforms during his premiership. The Progress campaign was also aimed at Unite and Len McCluskey from the beginning, before anything was known about any real irregularities (although the Progress candidate did of course know that he had himself recruited 11 members paid for with his personal cheque).

From the beginning, this was politics at its dirtiest. Throw enough mud and some of it will stick.

Unite was playing a critical role in close alliance with the constituency left within the party at a time when the Left had the strength again to exert some influence. Unite was also at the heart of the anti-austerity movement when the two Eds had finally been persuaded to espouse the economic course Progress had been urging. And McCluskey and his supporters had demonstrated their solid support in the union, and their hold was guaranteed for another five years.

Progress had nothing to lose and much to gain. The potential damage to Labour was the least of their concerns. The greatest disappointment is that they able to push Ed Miliband so far.



  1. David Ellis says:

    Nothing short of the destruction of the political consciousness of the working class as a class is the aim here. Socialism is being strangled with wire and Ed Milliband has been caught in the Act of Killing.

  2. John says:

    Yes Eric Joyce got his self deselected ,and unite were told by Blairites to stick upto selection and they did so, knowing the Blairites were behind a
    Plot to stop them

  3. Rod says:

    The Progress Tendency will stop at nothing to get their hands on safe seats – even if it means excluding ordinary people from representation, even if it means ending the link with the Unions.

    How long before the loyalty of Labour’s traditional supporters is eroded? It’s sure to be a slow process but the end of the Labour Party is in sight.

  4. Ultra_Fox says:

    Both Unite and Miliband are playing for very high stakes.

    There may be an uneasy truce between the union leadership and the Blairites for now, but it’s hard to see it lasting.

    If Labour fail to win a majority in 2015, it is hard to see how it will ever do again, at least in its current form.

    The Blairite dream of turning the party into a British version of the US Democrats may finally be realised.

  5. Peter Rowlands says:

    I do not doubt Jon’s conclusions, but Unite are not blameless in this. They demanded that Blairite shadow ministers were sacked and that their policies ( the right policies, but that’s not the point) be adopted, thus living up to the caricature of the union controlling the party. This was compounded by the Falkirk fiasco. However, Miliband’s response was ludicrous in referring it to the police and stupid in that it involves what most commentatiors agree will be a major shortfall in funding at a time when the party is in financial crisis.
    The storm should have been weathered. The obvious desirability of positively opting for Labour could have been dealt with by a change of wording in relevant forms which would have been unlikely to have significantly changed the number of levy payers. As it is we will alienate large numbers of party members for whom the trade union link is vital, and the party will be broker and weaker,
    Instead Miliband seems to think that there will be a mass influx of trade unionists into the party, which primaries will help to become a major force. As Pete Willsmann says, this is totally naive.
    However, rather than gripe about Progress the left should seek to emulate their relative success in getting candidates adopted, although the Sainsbury funds do clearly help a little. Notwithstanding Unite’s efforts there isn’t at the moment a satisfactory network for co-ordinating activity to this end in the Labour Party, and there needs to be.

  6. Jay Evans says:

    As far as I am concerned, the Labour party was born out of unions and is now trying to destroy them.
    If Labour can’t see that they are more and more like the Tory party then they are blind.
    I for one will be joining a union, I’m disabled and unable to work, but thankfully I can get a union membership through the likes of Unite. At least I’ll have a voice, unlike not being heard or even wanted in the Labour party!
    The whole voting system needs changing and maybe the unions can come up with another party which is all for one man one vote and for the working classes that gave birth to Labour!

  7. Rod says:

    “… able to push Ed Miliband so far.”

    Been thinking about this. Was Miliband really pushed? Or is this perception the product of an unwillingness to face up to what the Labour Party has become?

    I’ve generally assumed him to be the captive of the Blairite PLP but let’s not forget, there was no need to go as far as he has done re Falkirk. He could easily have resisted passing the matter to the police.

    And his own PPS is Jonathan Reynolds (an admirer of Danczuk’s ‘tough’ approach on ‘welfare’) who owes his own selection – in Purnell’s old seat – to intervention from Purnell and Mandelson, following allegations of a Trade Union ‘stitch-up’.

  8. David Pavett says:

    I’d like to echo Pete Rowland’s points and to emphasise that instead of moaning about Progress the left needs to show that it is up to the challenge of providing clear analyses of all the areas that Progress covers with (and more) and to develop attractive and feasible policies across all those areas (and more). It is surely stunning that after three years of Gove rampaging through the education system, while Labour puts up only token resistance, the left has only just started to develop a response:

    Compass seems to me to be the only group trying to do something like this. It’s ‘blue sky thinking’ approach of trying to define ‘the good society’ has been off-putting to man (including me) especially when this has ended up with remarkably uncritical policies in the area of practical politics (as in its Education booklet about a year ago). But things may be improving (perhaps the absence of Jon Cruddas has helped). Since it is the only left group covering a broad spectrum of policy issues, organising meetings, producing substantial booklets perhaps it would be a good idea of more on the left got involved in its activities – such as its recently launched education commission.

    I could make many criticisms of Compass but that is not the point here. The left is still highly fragmented whereas Labour’s right-wing has a home. We need that. There are reasons why the left tends to be more argumentative than the right so a more tolerant approach to differing opinions would help a lot.

  9. Andy F says:

    I think Pete Rowlands is in effect calling for a return of the Militant Tendency! They were a network across the party, effectively organised, who fought for socialist policies and socialist candidates.

  10. David Pavett says:

    Andy F. I doubt very much that he thinks that conspiratorial and sectarian politics can provide a solution to the problems. I hope he comes back on that point.

  11. Peter Rowlands says:

    Sorry, Andy F, but David Pavett is right about my views on Militant. However, we do need a network to promote left wing candidates and policies, and while to an extent, as David says, Compass has developed some decent policies, it is not now a Labour Party based group. The Labour Representation Committee is generally looked to as the umbrella left group, but as far as I can make out it is not satisfactorily promoting candidates or policies, perhaps reflecting recent infighting. Perhaps Left Futures has a role to play here. ( I should say that here in Wales Welsh Labour Grassroots does very good work, but I am talking about a UK wide network.)

  12. Patrick Coates says:

    The Co-op Party can take on the roll, it is waiting for leadership and has more MPs than the Libdums.

  13. Carl R says:

    I think Rod in the comments above asks a very important question. There’s a assumption that the leadership wants to do the right thing, if only it weren’t so pressured from the Right. But the response here had strong echoes of the worst of the late-80s Kinnock era, with the purposeful dissolution of many of the most dynamic oppositional elements and a contempt for the activist left. McClusky’s response to this gave me no confidence in his own ability to influence the Party if Labour should win by default next time.

    Patrick, the Co-op Party has recently had a massive coup with Progress consolidating their control. So that’s not going to happen.

    I agree Compass might have some kind of role in the future but it’s very hard currently to see what this is. I wonder if history will see the Brown interlude as the rattling last gasp of traditional social democracy in Labour?

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