Time to show the anti trade union brigade the door

3rd July, 2013 8:36 am

In recent days an assortment of Labour peers, ex MPs and commentators have all sought to pronounce to pronounce at length on the Falkirk selection.

All did so without having ever seen the internal report commissioned by the Labour Party. Their claims, frequently intemperate, and often rooted in a desire for publicity have been picked up and aired at length on the BBC and elsewhere. The Guardian even managed to devote a whole editorial to the issue, something that it never quite managed to do throughout all of the years of candidates being parachuted into seats, of the ‘Mandelson asks’, and the fixed short-lists that had been such a shabby fixture for over two decades.

Lord Mandelson is unlikely to have ever made it into Parliament without the support locally of the trade unions. Ditto former Minister, and South Wales NUM Official, Kim Howells. The departing, bibulous MP for Falkirk, Eric Joyce, was of course neatly slotted into the constituency in the first place by the old party machine. That said, had any of the above acknowledged the rotten culture of which they were part before Ed Miliband and General Secretary Iain McNicol set about restoring more of a semblance of local democracy, and had they some very clear evidence of Unite wrong doing, they would have deserved to have been listed to carefully.

But the fact is that they didn’t have any evidence and what they have had to say about trade unions and Unite in particular has given sections of the media a field day. Many of the old anti union tirades have been re-heated and run out. The objective as always has been to create an impression of union power and influence that only exists in the fevered imagination of the press barons. A particularly silly and snide example was provided by Rachel Sylvester of The Times who ludicrously asked; ‘Does Len McCluskey or Ed Miliband run Labour?’. There is an unspoken truth here. Sadly many of these commentators don’t particularly like the idea of working class people being elected to Parliament. They prefer their own kind. They are snobs, without having anything particular to be snobbish about.

Parliamentary selections are effectively Britain’s primaries. They are important because once selected many MPs can expect to be there for life. As party membership has shrunk – in all of the parties over the past two or three decades -party managers have become more and more involved in selecting those candidates, fearing that often moribund constituencies might make the ‘wrong choices’. In that time there has been a near collapse in working class representation in Parliament. It was of course the lack of working class representation in Parliament that had the unions form the Labour Representation Committee in the first place. The wheel has now turned full circle.

In Falkirk, as in a number of constituencies, the trade unions have been trying to breathe some life back into local CLPs, recruiting new members. Of course the unions would like to see those members support union sympathetic candidates, but there is no obligation on any member to support any candidate. This should surely be applauded and not derided. In any event, it is something that the shop workers union, USDAW have been doing for years and without complaint from any quarter.

Officials of the Unite union have now had an opportunity to see the report prepared by the Labour Party into Falkirk, which is a good deal more than any of their critics. They have found little or no evidence to suggest any wrong doing. The union has issued a very robust statement that can neatly be summarised by this line taken from it:

‘These circumstances can only reinforce Unite’s conviction that this investigation and report are essentially political in character, and result from the publicly-stated desire of some elements in the Party to minimise trade union involvement in parliamentary selections.’

The union is demanding that the constituency is taken out of ‘special measures’ and that the selection be allowed to go ahead without over a hundred members being disenfranchised, and at the very least the party’s National Executive Committee should get to make that decision.

Natural justice demands that this is just the course of action that needs to be taken. But in the meantime, the anti union brigade within the party and outside need to consider what Labour might be without union members, their life experience, activism and their subscriptions. A hollowed out party would of course be easier to manage, just in the days of some of the old rotten boroughs, where prospective Labour Party members used to be told ‘Sorry, we are full up!’

For there is another uncomfortable truth, and that is the Falkirk fall out makes it that more difficult for trade unions to argue against the voices calling for reduced affiliations, or no affiliation at all.

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