For most of yesterday it felt like the Labour leadership and Unite were locked in a Mexican standoff, both sure they were in the right, and neither willing to back down. Letters have rattled back and forth between the two sides over the last week, and a flurry of statements and counter statements from both sides only succeeded in unhelpfully ramping up the pressure. The temperature only went down a notch when Len McCluskey released a statement yesterday afternoon giving Ed Miliband his backing. Considering the internal backlash he’s likely to face over ramping down the rhetoric, that won’t have been an easy call to make.
The party was able to breath again, but not comfortably – more the kind you’d take if you weren’t sure how much oxygen was left in the room. Shallow, uncomfortable breaths.
Because throughout the Labour movement, it has begun to feel in recent weeks like the fragile unity that has endured over the past three years has crumbled. As Emma Burnell noted earlier today, we know who our opponents are, and we’re sure they’re on our own side. Worse, much of the party actively seems to be itching for a fight, longing to wrap their murderous fingers around the throats of their would-be victims. Metaphorically, of course.
And no-one has yet found a better prism than the selection process in Falkirk to reflect their rage. All of a sudden huge chunks of the party – goaded on by the media – appear to have a stellar knowledge of the inner workings of the CLP. They profess to know how many members were signed up by who, and when, and how. They know where the blame lies and are keen to wag their finger accordingly.
The fact that most of them could not find Falkirk on a map (I know I struggled) doesn’t seem to put anyone off. The fact that no-one seems to have seen the party’s report, or have a clear idea of precisely what allegations have been made about who only serves to act as more grist to the rumour mill. The party should make the report into the Falkirk farrago public, so that we can have an honest debate about the merits/demerits of Unite’s behaviour – or anyone else involved in the selection for that matter.
Yet amongst all of the angry vitriol (much of which seems less about the dynamics of a selection, and more about the politics of a party) there is one group who no-one seems to have given much consideration to – long serving members of Falkirk CLP (the 200 or so who were members when Eric Joyce resigned) who are going to lose out due to events beyond their control.
By placing the CLP under special measures, these members are inadvertently punished.
These members had to watch as their MP disgraced their party and their community, left the party but refused to leave Parliament. They’ve seen their local party’s name dragged through the mud again in the press as a watchword for fixing. Now, instead of getting to choose their own shortlist for his replacement, they’ll be presented with a centrally imposed shortlist to choose from – depriving them of a chance to choose their own candidate in their own way.
Placing Falkirk CLP under “special measures” serves to penalise the very members who absolutely no-one is accusing of wrongdoing. The Labour Party’s concern seems to be with those members who were signed up after Eric Joyce, but “special measures” means that every member loses their right to choose which candidates should be shortlisted.
Fortunately, there is a way to give those members their full rights as party members in the selection, whilst maintaining the integrity of the selection. The party should allow Falkirk CLP to run their own selection, choose their own shortlist and selection their own candidate – but the freeze date should be May 2012 when Eric Joyce resigned. that way no-one can accuse the CLP of being over-run by a “rent a mob” but nor will the shortlist be imposed from on high by the party.
It seems like a sensible solution that could allow the selection to get underway and allow everyone to get back to focussing our guns on the Tories, not each other. But in the current, febrile mood of the Labour Party, it almost certainly won’t happen.