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Falkirk, and the developing row between Labour and UNITE

Len McCluskeyThe 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.

I am not party to exactly what happened in Falkirk West, and indeed UNITE have also not seen the report, but as Jon Lansman observes:

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 Phil Burton-Cartledge observes, there is a certain chutzpah in Progress complaining against selection stitch ups, and disproportionate influence. As Tom Watson argued in 2011:

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.

There is a danger that the right wing of the Labour Party is still addicted to factional politics, for example refighting old battles from 30 years ago; as I have argued before:

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.

And so we’re left with a potentially damaging episode with threats of legal action and angry rejoinders flying around. Oh what a lovely (internal) war!

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.


  1. Jon Lansman says:

    I would take issue with two things that Andy says here:

    Firstly, on the interview with Len McCluskey in the New Statesman, I think it should be seen in the context of the persistent attacks on Ed Miliband I previously described here by  Tony BlairPeter Mandelson, Alan MilburnDavid Blunkett, John Reid and Tessa Jowell, plus briefings by sundry unnamed shadow cabinet members in the run-up to the local elections. With hindsight, it was unhelpful to have named individuals, if indeed Len did so (he did later state that Eaton distorted what he said), but it was just as if not more unhelpful that Ed responded in the terms that he did.

    Secondly, I don’t think we are really in a position to make judgements about exactly what has happened in Falkirk – the evidence is available neither to Unite nor to us. If any of the Progress supporters who have leapt to the attack have seen any, they do not use it to substantiate their claims. As you quote, I don’t believe Unite have broken any rules and nor do Unite.

    I do sympathise with what you and Phil say about trade unions encouraging their members to join the party requiring “real engagement”, although it is not that clear what this means. Most party members are inactive, or only slightly active and that certainly does not preclude their involvement in selections. Last year only 26% of Falkirk CLP’s 194 members voted in the postal ballot for NEC and NPF members – perhaps not the most important activity but an available indicator about an activity which requires minimal effort.

    As it happens, in Unite’s political strategy, the scale of membership recruitment envisaged is as you suggest – the target (not achieved as I understand it) was 5000 members in 2012 across the UK, which is in the region of 10 members in a Labour-held constituency, and the whole purpose of recruiting those members is for them to “engage“. I don’t think this would be any less legitimate if there were constituencies where 100 members were recruited, provided that they were recruited in support of the union strategy – namely in order to bring the party into closer touch with active union members, and to influence in a generalised way the party’s policy-making and encourage the selection of more working class and union-friendly candidates. As Jennie Formby, Unites’s new political director points out:

    Once they are members of the Labour party – whether or not they are paying for the privilege themselves – they are free to choose either to follow or ignore the union’s recommendations on who to vote for as parliamentary candidates.

    The most obvious thing which would call into question the recruitment in Falkirk would be if the recruitment was undertaken by one individual with the very narrow objective of influencing the forthcoming parliamentary selection. If this is what has happened, we would need to know the details before rushing to judgement. In any case, this is (quite rightly) not what was intended in the union’s strategy.

  2. Johnreid says:

    Jesus,if lansman is arguing with Newman it really is the Julian front arguing with the people’s popular front of Judia,

    Jon, what ever criticism Jowell, Reid and Co, have had of Ed it was constructive criticism,,better made in public

    Andy, if you’re coming out with the keep fighting the 74 election,but we shouldnt fight the 97 one agan,I’ll remind you that the 3 elections after 97′ the Tories haven’t won,one since ,the 3 elections after 74′ all fought on similar policies, regarding unions, the tores won majorities of 44,144 and 102 respectively

    As for the GMB motion into progress,not being confrontat

  3. Johnreid says:

    Confrontational, it came out with the lie that progress was a party within a party, and sent to all constituency secretaries, a letter to that, and he called for progress and Blairites to be ousted, based on that lie, I call that confrontational,

    Tom Watson would say that as he’s trying to appease his union pay masters and get more money, he wants his candidate in place,

    The outrage about Fairweather wasn’t symphetic, I couldn’t care less, the only synthetic outrage was against that Anne-Marie woman who’s concerned about Muslims, being short listed,

  4. Robert says:

    Well John tell me mate, at the next election if the GMB and UNITE decide to disaffiliate mate, then what for Miliband and his Tory Lite.

    As for Progress Dear god I know your a member or you should be of course it’s a Party within a party it’s Blair’s baby.

    I really do not know where Labour is going and I hope they have the banks sorted out for loans.

  5. Johnreid says:

    Party within a party, they don’t put candidates up against the labour ones,

    I’m not a member

    What will Ed do in 2015 if unite don’t back him,he’ll get swing voters who don’t like the way Mcklusky is acting to vote for him

  6. Robert says:

    And those swing voters will pay for the next election, and take the New Tory Lite party into what.

    Why would a swing voter vote for Miliband I can under stand them voting for Blair he’s pure Tory, but Miliband.

    So far Miliband has agreed with the majority of what the Tories are doing, so if I was a swing voter why go for the copy when the real thing is in power.

    Sorry the Polls may show Labour winning, I suspect in the end the swing voters will look at Cameron and Osborne, Miliband and Ball’s and they will decide as they mostly do to allow the party in power another term, and to be honest I would vote for that before Voting for Miliband.

  7. Matty says:

    “it really is the Julian front” Would be that with Clary as leader and Holland as deputy?

  8. Patrick Coates says:

    I am confused what are the top 6 people on about, it is not getting the members but keeping them that is the problem, and it is all down to money.
    If I had keep the members who joined in 2O11 with those who joined in 2012, we would now have more members than Falkirk West Clp.
    Unfortunatly those who join for Free, £1 or £15 leave at the end of the year.
    Some have become wise to this 8 so far who have rejoined again for £15 or have become +1s, only about 2 new members are in a Union, as we are in a the south east no one bothers us.

  9. Mickhall says:

    I find some of these comments amusing, the trade unions are the largest membership organisation in UK, they finance the LP and still people expect them to sit quite like church mice. They did that and where did it get them? what is needed in the UK is an oppositional voice to the neo liberal economics which have poisoned the LP leaderships.

    How John can boast about the Blairite victories when they produced massive inequalities and a long list of war crimes, yea that is really something to be proud about.

    I can see the broken egg shells, but the whole point of the LP was to produce a well rounded omelette, not I might add to enrich the minority and in the process create massive inequality..

  10. Johnreid says:

    Mick wall, I didn’t bost about the a blair victories, youre right the unions did finance labour in the past told us what policies to heve, and the tories won landslides, did the unions take responsibilty for labour losing, or id they blame labour M.Ps , but I didnt hear the unions being too happy that labour use to lose when they backed us,and came up with policy idea, yes the unions now fund labour more tHan they did 20 years ago, but I note they’re the ones causing ally bad coverage, and they’re the one who’s Ed scared of, so they have Ed M, saying to his fellow M.Ps don’t criticise Owen jones as it’ll look bad, even though a jones hasn’t got a clue

  11. giselle97 says:

    July 2, 2013 at 11:00 am

    Sorry the Polls may show Labour winning, I suspect in the end the swing voters will look at Cameron and Osborne, Miliband and Ball’s and they will decide as they mostly do to allow the party in power another term, and to be honest I would vote for that before Voting for Miliband.”
    Well, aren’t I glad that I joined the Labour Party at last because of Ed Miliband (after 40 yrs of voting Labour) – because I can then cancel out your pathetic “throw my dummy out of the pram” vote for the Tory Party! Jesus Christ Almighty – wake up.

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