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Ed, Falkirk and the Westminster Bubble

And so the infamous “Falkirk episode” comes to a conclusion by way of a press release squeezed out on a Friday afternoon. The co-accused, Karie Murphy and Stevie Deans, have had the suspensions from the party lifted, and the powers-that-be conclude there is no case to answer. Reciprocating, Murphy has now withdrawn her interest in the Falkirk seat.

So the animosity and subterranean wrestling that rumbled on over the summer, culminating in the GMB’s announcement that it will be cutting its affiliation fee by about a million quid was for nothing. Except it wasn’t, as far as the leader’s office goes.

Let’s get functional. Political parties more or less condense and represent the interests of classes and fractions of classes. Depending on the character of the system they operate in, they may or may not be alliances of different groups with competing interests. In Britain’s notoriously unrepresentative representative democracy, First-Past-The-Post elections gives Westminster a two-and-a-bit party system, and political parties that are alliances of interests. Labour, for example, was from the beginning a coalition of the labour movement and sections of the professional middle class. For the ‘representative’ function to, erm, function, required that the party machinery itself act as a transmission belt. As well as winning elections, it holds its representatives (MPs, councillors, etc.) to account. It keeps them in touch with the aspirations, desires and interests of the party membership who, on the whole, are more or less representative of the constituency that formed and supports the party. 

A simplification of what a party does, yes, but you get the gist. You can see why a strong party organisation is necessary to keep parliamentary and local authority elites in touch with what’s going on in the real world, and especially so where an incumbent has never shared life experiences similar to the people they support, and/or is caught completely up in the bubble-like subculture (or subculture-like bubble) of government and opposition. Where party organisation is weak, the stakes of the bubble are taken more seriously and, dangerously, can get confused with what’s going on in the real world. Unfortunately, as far as Labour is concerned it has suffered a “post-democratic” hollowing out, pretty much like every other mainstream political party in Western Europe.

Ed Miliband is a nice, personable bloke. Despite media portrayals to the contrary, he is much more substantial, intelligent and ruthless than the Prime Minister. But, from a labour movement point of view, he and his team are almost entirely beholden to the day-to-day nonsense of the Westminster bubble. Not surprising considering Ed grew up in an exceptional – as in unusual – family, went to Oxbridge and has since spent the entirety of his adult working life in a tight radius around central London’s political quarter. The same can be said about most, if not all his team of advisors. On the real lives of real people, Ed “gets it”, but only as something intangible – as one might “get” a logic puzzle, like a Rubik’s Cube for instance. Party organisation, if it’s doing its job, can mitigate the pathological obsessions of the bubble. But it’s not doing its job.

Falkirk is one of its bitter fruits. The demonisation of trade unions is common sense inside the bubble. Outside, no one really cares. When probed about it, people are more likely to trust trade unions than business. Pitifully few are arsed about the structuring of the relationship Labour has with the democratic workplace representatives of working people. Despite this, I’m very sad to say the leader’s response to Falkirk was thought through and addressed solely in the terms of closely-bounded political/media universe he inhabits. Prior to the interviews and speeches about “mending” Labour’s “broken” relationship, did he speak with trade union leaders before they got the traditional “embarrassing relative” treatment? I doubt it. Did he and his office come up with their plan to unilaterally recast the relationship regardless of the investigations into Falkirk? Of course they did. Why? Because they felt the heat of the Tories and the press and were desperate to to answer their jibes by concession, not robust defence. A bit of moderate union-bashing would play well to an otherwise hostile press, and it would draw the sting from the “weak” barb. It might give Ed some room to challenge Dave on donation caps too.

It hasn’t worked. The “narrative” is still the same. Though the plans aren’t entirely without merit, was the price worth it? The reputation of my union was dragged through the mud. One of the party’s best-known and popular figures resigned from the front rank of politics. The very legitimacy of trade union money in politics,donations from working people, was put into question. And now the party won’t have a million quid to fund the organising work we need to undertake to win in 2015. Falkirk might have been a cock up, but by no means was it the biggest blunder made this summer.

19 Comments

  1. James Martin says:

    Milliband intelligent? Well intelligent people don’t make unsubstantuated public accusations against fellow party members do they? Milliband is a prat, and while the main reason for this is that he has never done a proper job in his entire life (and therefore has never understood what trade unions are actually for), we cannot continually excuse him because of this.

    If anyone has heard the odious thug Eric Joyce this morning prattling on about how this result just shows that the case isn’t ‘proven’ then like me no doubt they will be wishing that someone gives him a bit of his own regular medicine to shut him up. But he is a result both of his own dubious selection process by the right-wing Party machine, and of Milliband allowing a situation to develop over Falkirk that should not have happened.

    So is Milliband going to apologise? Is he really listening as he constantly states in his Party mass-mails? Or is this just a temporary set-back for the completion of ‘The Project’ that he so obviously supports?

  2. Jim Denham says:

    In an ideal world, Miliband would now apologise to Unite (and to Stevie Deans and Karie Murphy personally) and withdraw all proposals to weaken the unions’ collective input to the Party. Action should also be taken against anyone shown to have (knowingly) made false allegations regarding Falkirk

    But of course, that won’t happen. But what can, realistically, be made to happen is the defeat of the “opt-in” proposal and all other proposals to dilute the unions’ collective rights within the Party. The danger seems to be that a de facto deal has been done, whereby the Party leadership formally exonerates UNITE, and McCluskey allows Miliband to proceed with his plans. That would be unacceptable, and the UNITE United Left group (which has a majority on the union’s EC), meeting last Saturday, almost unanimously called on the EC to oppose “opt in” and all other moves to weaken union collective involvement in the Party. That’s a battle we can win, so long as Len McCluskey and his political adviser(s) now change tack and stand up to Miliband.

  3. Jeff Slee says:

    It’s not just about the ‘Westminster bubble’ being out of touch with real life. There are elements in the Labour Party – Peter Mandelson’s name was mentioned by Tom Watson in The Guardian a few weeks ago – who want to separate the Party from the Unions, so that it no longer has any working class base and can be a clearly capitalist party more like the US Democratic party. They seized on Falkirk as a hook to hang this project on. Their hook has now broken, and this is a setback for them.

  4. Rob the cripple says:

    The simple fact for all of this the Labour party is fighting internal politics, while the Tories are dealing with the country.

    Each time labour now comes to the table and say we are going to do this the Tories will state Labour as you know are being paid by the Unions and Miliband has to then fight the accusation simple because the poor thing has little else to talk about.

    The Tories PR team will just state Miliband is fighting the Union but look he’s in the pocket of the Unions and labour will be off again.

    I think right now Labour will be hammered at the next election the Tories will walk it they may even get my vote but of course I’d rather cut my throat, but Labour with MIliband are Gordon Brown again unelectable .

    Labour should be attacking the Tories over policies but Labour are spending so much time arguing about funding I’ve not even heard Miliband attack the Tories on their funding.

    The Unions brought this on themselves they have to live with this, Miliband is Brown poor in front of the Camera unelectable because he tried to keep up with Cameron, you have David Miliband seen with a banana and you have Brown telling us he eats nine, you have Cameron out jogging and you saw Brown running, it was a show mainly because of the way Blair had changed the way politics was seen it had become a TV spectacle.

    I’m sorry but I suspect we are watching the same Labour party which saw Thatcher winning four terms Labour battled Thatcher who just stated the Union and the labour party was defeated ok plus the leader were rubbish, Thatcher stepped down and still Labour could not win, then Blair came and now we have the same thing Labour are battling to find another leader with his skills . Harriet is getting ready for an election an internal one, Ball’s has gone missing I suspect meeting with the Unions and poor old Miliband is heading for thunder bird five with his brother.

  5. jaydeepee says:

    You’re right: most of the public don’t care about Trade Unions nor Labour’s link with them. The truth about Falkirk was known the moment the police declined to charge anyone for anything as there was ‘no evidence’. A Labour report couldn’t trump that conclusion.
    Also, many may not know that Ed Miliband published his list of donations and meetings last year and he had nine meetings with Len McCluskey and, contrary to some of the drivel on this site, they do get on. I think somebody’s having their plonker pulled by someone.
    I can assure Rob (as far as anyone is able to) that Labour will not get hammered at the next election and that most of its perceived problems with TU’s will be behind it.Chin up.

  6. Rob the cripple says:

    Yea that is the daftest statement so far Len and Miliband get on like a house of Fire. Well Houses on fire tend to burn out and the GMB may well paint it’s self into a corner.

    The country is struggling people cannot eat they are using food banks and Miliband and Len are arguing over the right and wrong of a labour party so far to the right of even the Tories.

    With a leader in Miliband who will say just about anything, welfare reforms are right, Immigration was wrong, the bed room tax we have nothing to say, god almighty the bloke is offering us the country a Tory Lite party run by a bloke who has little to offer.

    Len and Miliband are like a house on fire and they are both in it, we have all seen what the Unions and labour can do to make people think they are separate, but this is now more serious.

    I cannot for the life of me see labour getting in.

  7. Jon Williams says:

    Ed seems to being getting an awful lot of blow back from this… strong action was asked for on not being led by the unions (and not to mention keeping us out of Syria), which was provided and – now we’re all upset!! It seems Ed can’t do right for being wrong…?

  8. James Martin says:

    Jay, whether or not Miliband and McCluskey ‘get on’ is increasingly irrelevent. I’ve been a Party member for nearly three decades, and yet I have never known so much contempt for it within the unions where I have been contantly active over that time. Sometimes admitting you are a LP member in a union meeting (even one that is affiliated) can feel like saying you are in AA.

    And that increasing detachment from a Party that appears to give so little to those that need it most feeds up from the rank and file to exec members, and then the exec holds general secretaries to account. For GMB of all unions to have done what they did this week was a real sign not of playing games, but of deep disatisfaction not only with Miliband but with the Party as a whole.

    McCluskey is between a rock and hard place. I suspect his instinct is to back Miliband where he can (despute Milband being a prat), but his EC and his members are increasingly pee’d off and are questioning why so much money is paid into ‘their’ party for so little in return.

    In one sense all this is being played out in a vacuum. The absence of the LP left in this debate (aside from some shouting from the sidelines) is an indication of how small we have become – but that in turn is because the struggle against capitalist explaoitation in the workplaces and unions has in recent years itself been muted, and the only way we can grow is if socialist ideas within the working class again grow on the back of struggle. What you are left with in place of this are the big cheeses talking to each other with everyone else looking on.

    That is starting to change – and the real problem for both Miliband and McCluskey is that there is so little REAL support now for Labour amongst workers (as opposed to a lesser of two or three evils sort of grudging support) that decisions about the link may not soon be theirs to make.

  9. Rob the cripple says:

    I will stand by my comment right now I cannot see for the life of me Labour winning the next election, nothing in it for the working class or the non working class . Unions are now asking the same question what’s the difference between new labour and Miliband newer labour. Seems not a lot really.

    And now we are hearing about the sales of chemicals to Assad it’s unbelievable.

  10. David Melvin says:

    I suspect Miliband will not be apologising to Unite. Westminster politicians seem to have a problem with the concept of burden of prove. On a very low turnout Labour could possibly win the next election, but with a PLP dominated by Blairites only committed to continue the Con-Dem governments austerity will it matter? In the 1980’s Sainsbury funded the SDP, Progress will not leave the Labour party, they need the Labour party logo to get elected, if the unions leave the Labour party the Blairites have a clear run, which appears to be what Miliband wants? As for more union members joining the Labour party, the effect is more likely to be union members leaving the Labour party. With a different , more democratic, electoral system there could be a viable alternative to Labour similar to the United Left in Spain which is in coalition with the PSOE in Andalucia.

  11. Rod says:

    The three main parties are very similar, with only slight variations in policy detail (e.g. Labour wants to privatise the Royal Mail but with more safeguards than the Tory privatisation plan and Ed wants to go to war but not as quickly as Cameron).

    It’s only personal ambition (not enough ministerial limousines to go round) that prevents a coalition between the three of them.

  12. Rod says:

    @ Rob

    “we are hearing about the sales of chemicals to Assad it’s unbelievable.”

    Well, how about Assad’s main supplier of arms, the state-owned Russian arms manufacturer RosoboroneExport* also having a contract worth $millions with the U.S**?

    War is very profitable.

    * http://www.caat.org.uk/issues/arms-fairs/farnborough/rosoboronexport.php

    ** http://www.army-technology.com/news/newsus-dod-orders-additional-mi-17-helicopters-from-rosoboronexport

  13. swatantra says:

    In fact EdM has nothing to apologise for. The substance of the allegations still remain: that Unite managed to conjure up a mass of new members just in time for the Falkirk selection. Convenient eh? So something was afoot, and we need an explanation of what. I’m pessimistic enough to agree with Rob’s take on things; EdM comes from the wrong background as do 80% of our elected representatives. But Unions have not really done enough to make Union membership an attractive proposition. So a deep introspection and naval gazing will be required at Bournemouth. Unions have to change, and EdM’s reforms will force that change on them, and a change in in the nature of the Labour Party itself, reconnecting again with genuine working class roots not the officials and apparchitks that seem to rule the roost these days.

  14. Rob the cripple says:

    The simple fact is for a long long time the link between the Unions and the Labour party has been strained , but now the Labour party wants a new way of working with the Unions it has to be voted on by the members.

    Lets have a vote and then we can all accept that vote otherwise I’m off, it’s a simple as that.

    I’m sick of this happening year in year out, obviously Labour has another method of funding maybe the Labour parties grandee maybe thinking of pumping in a few million so his son can be leader of the labour party, or we have offered the Indian group of Non Doms a deal if labour return to power.

    But it’s time Unions worked with all political parties not just the Tory Lite.

  15. James Martin says:

    swatantra wrote “The substance of the allegations still remain: that Unite managed to conjure up a mass of new members just in time for the Falkirk selection.”

    Wow, a trade union encourages its members to join a party that it founded and funds. Is that it? Is that really a problem to you? Because if it is either go and give your head a wobble, or quickly join the Lib-Dims where you would be so obviously more at home…

  16. David Melvin says:

    I agree James, but if the Labour front bench actually opposed the worst government in my lifetime and proposed a clear alternative it would have the support of a broad range of left opinion. As it is Miliband plays the Con-Dems tune and attacks the unions. I await with interest the TUC, the Labour party conference and the founding of Left Unity in November.

  17. Rob the cripple says:

    I’ve already lost interest…one excuse for Miliband to not have policies or ideas or to attack the Tories, he can now state in two years time if he loses it was not me sir it was them Unions.

    Can we have state Funding pay off all debts and then we will not need money from bankers or Unions.

  18. Jim Denham says:

    See: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-24006702

    At 00:50 McCluskey says:

    “Unite has welcomed the proposals, Unite does not agree with the status quo.”

    When did Unite, as opposed to McCluskey (and Andrew Murray), take that position????

  19. Rob the cripple says:

    One of the top Union stated they had received a phone call from Miliband at 4pm saying just the 100 year Labour and Union alliance was over if that’s true then I think this is Progress and Blair and poor old Miliband is just a puppet.

    Or of course he pushing to get the shove maybe Thunder Bird Five looks like a better job.

    Lets see next year will Miliband and his cronies be asking Unions to fund the next election or will it be UNITE pouring all it’s assets into a dead end Miliband and a Tory Lite party.

    Do not know not that interested now labours not a party of the working class that’s for sure Brown was right Labour is a party of the middle class poor things are squeezed.

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