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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  • John Ruddy

    I would believe Unite’s protestations more if they were trying to breathe life into many more CLPs, rather than just the ones where there is an impending selection for a safe or realistic target seat.

    I would also believe them if there wernt a number of people who contacted the party to ask why they were receiving mailshots from Labour, only to find out they had been signed up without their knowledge.
    As you say, Mark, the Falkirk seat was the subject of a stitch up in the past – so perhaps you ought to understand the anger – yes anger – of the membership there at this stitch up. Existing members – virtually all of them trade unionists – and many of them members of Unite – do not want the union to try to parachute in a candidate not only with no connections to the area – but also with no connections to Scotland!

    • Michael Carey

      From twitterites who know more about the contents of the report than we do, it seems the evidence points to a mass recruitment for votes… unrelated to Unite

    • SFC1k

      If the Unite preferred candidate gets selected it wouldn’t surprise me if the constituency fell to the SNP next time around.

      An English candidate taking on the SNP in a constituency with an SNP MSP & a Labour council that is relying on the Tories to keep it in power? That’s a hard sell, especially if the local party isn’t fully behind her – does anyone expect all the new members to actively campaign?

      • reformist lickspittle

        “English” candidate? Where have you got that idea from??

        • SFC1k

          fair comment, sloppy thinking on my part – I should know better than to assume that living n working in England means someone is English.

          And just because a journalist writes for the Falkirk Herald doesn’t mean they know what they’re talking about 🙁

    • rekrab

      Jeez John, you just go from one extreme to the other.As your an Englishman based in Scotland John want kind of connection do you mean? See John ain’t the truth here that new labour has seen the demise of the labour party in Scotland and their selection process has been at the forefront of that demise.

      John you might just get a nod from 87 new labour members but the vast majority of the Falkirk public want a real labour candidate, someone to follow on from Dennis Canavan, not another yes man for Murphy’s ways?

      • John Ruddy

        Well, any kind of connection would be nice. I understand that the last time the unite candidate was in the constituency was in March – on the train travelling through Falkirk going north to Inverness to Scottish Labour conference!

        • rekrab

          Well, the news I’m hearing is unite deny the allegations that the new members didn’t know they were joining the labour party and no such evidence exists to contradict that and I’ve also heard that other candidates have paid by cheque to install new members, it isn’t uncommon for candidates to recruit new members for their cause no matter where the election is?

          John, if your gripe is about a local candidate being selected then fair dues but for me the greater issue is the quality and thoughts of the new candidate select and of course the manner in which HQ has been installing their choice for some time.

          • JohnPReid

            The other article has all these wings fighting, well if Labour HQ won’t give the report to the authorities, here’s another faction, Unite Vs the police….

      • Pete

        Whilst I don’t live in Scotland and so have no experience with the internal affairs local parties in Scotland, with respect rekrab, I’d have to say New Labour’s electoral record challenges the idea that “new labour has seen the demise of the labour party in Scotland”, at least at a national level. In 1997, 2001, 2005 and 2010, Labour won more seats in Scotland (as a percentage of the total number available) than it did in any of the previous 14 general elections. And given that our share of the vote in Scotland even in 2010 was 7% higher than our share in 1983 and just 4% down on our record-shattering 1997 result, I dare say that undermines the idea that the “vast majority” of the Scottish electorate reject New Labour as not being “real Labour”.

  • JohnPReid

    It’s not those in labour who are anti trade unions, they’re anti undemocraticac trade unions, don’t give me the working class’s representation thing again, how many Liberals or Tories who made it to Parliament are anti trade unions

    • Alex Otley

      Are you seriously arguing that Mandelson is anti-union because he supports greater party democracy? Give me strength.

      • JohnPReid

        No of course not, I said that he was arguing that in this case it was anti undemocratic unions he was annoyed at, something we all should

        • Alex Otley

          Rank hypocrisy to launch an attack on the union link in general, then claim you are only against undemocratic unions, whilst spending your political career actively undermining Labour Party democracy. Don’t fall for it. The right of the party have never had a problem with undemocratic unions, or any undemocratic practices within the party – so long as it is them benefiting.

  • JohnPReid

    Kim Howells enter parliament as someone who was pro trade unions, after the 92 defeat he finally realised that it was the unions including his Own NUM,that had lost it for labour, remember he was the miners leader who sent those who threw the brick that Killed taxi driver David Wilkie, to that bridge where they protested, he also went to the NUM office afterwards and destroyed the records to show he done that, unintentionally though,

    • tombristol

      Do you have any proof for this slanderous allegation?

  • Robin Hay

    The shambles in Falkirk (and elsewhere) is yet more ammo for those of us who believe in Open Primaries. That would give all members of Unite in Falkirk a chance to vote on who the candidate should be.

  • Mickey

    What about the cynical manipulation by Unite and GMB of the London MEP selection, where charismatic vote-winners like Carole Tongue were not even interviewed, seemingly to clear the field for Unite’s favoured candidates? Is this “breathing life into local parties”? No, it is anti-democratic abuse of power.

  • Siobhan O’Malley

    Mandelson and his Progress cronies have a cheek condemning the unions for fixing selections…….. They spent their whole careers doing exactly just that, using the money of rich backers and foreign dictatorships to subvert British parliamentary democracy.

    Progress launched a campaign last year to “Break the Link”. Unsurprisingly it was a complete non starter and they ended up disowning the campaign and claiming it was the property of a few rogue members rather than anything sanctioned by Lord Sainsbury & Co.

    We all know the anti-union brigade in Labour despise the idea of socialism and the working class. When they’re not denying that the working class exist, they’re engaging in rancid Tory-style attacks on ordinary people. For example, Simon Danczuk supporting Tory attacks on the unemployed.

    They are repulsed by Labour values. They have no values. It’s just me, me, me and whatever position or consultancy I can get out of the Labour Party.

    • Pete

      Siobhan, just where exactly did you hear about this supposed “Break the Link” campaign? This is the first I have heard of it in any way as a member of Progress, a google search turns up absolutely nothing, and I find the very notion that there was such a campaign utterly ridiculous, given that a great many people in Progress are union members (including myself), several active ones. Indeed, the President of the General Federation of Trade Unions, which is supported by unions like Unite and GMB, sits on its Strategy Board; at least two Unite members do also, and the Deputy Director used to work for Community.

      If there is a truly anti-union element within our party, then it is a very small one for certain, with little support. Both the right and the left broadly recognise the invaluable, essential contribution of the unions to our party. Everyone in the Labour Party should support the promotion a co-operative, positive, mutually respectful relationship with the trade union movement. But we do and must remain distinct from one another. Criticising Unite leaders and organisers for unfairly manipulating the selection process in seats like Falkirk is not being anti-union. We should all be offended and insulted whenever an organisation tries to undermine our party’s democratic processes, regardless of the intentions or ideology of that organisation.

      Why on Earth would someone join the Labour Party if they were “repulsed by Labour values”? Both the right and the left of the party share the same core values. We are all committed to building a fairer, more progressive society. We all share a sincere commitment to social justice and true equality of economic opportunity. But we are a broad church movement with different views on how those values can be best be served and promoted in government. I for one support the vision for Labour put forward by groups like Progress not in spite of my working class background, but because of it, and whilst every basket has its rotten apples, I have yet to meet anyone on the right of the party who “despises” working class people – quite the opposite.

    • RAnjeh

      Siobhan, if you are going to attack Progress and defend the rather shoddy actions of Len McCluskey then you should at least get your facts straight:
      1) Break The Link was a parody account on Twitter launched by a leftwinger who was trying to invent Progress’ position.
      2) Simon Danczuk is not supporting Tory attacks on the unemployed on the contrary he is supporting the unemployed get back into work.
      3) Why do you insist on confusing working class with far-left (for eg. Hazel Blears, Alan Milburn, Alan Johnson are working class).
      4) No Labour values? So what is campaigns for free universal childcare and social care, Campaign for a Labour Majority, Tax Avoidance Charter, ‘new capitalism’, living wage etc. (not Labour).
      5) Anti-union brigade? Why is it that many Progress members are trade unionists from unions such as USDAW, Community and on ocassion Unite and GMB.
      6) Simon Danczuk is not a member of Progress!
      If you oppose moderates in the Labour Party and want it to return to a tiny core vote strategy and lose elections to the Tories, that’s fine. But don’t spread lies on LabourList and don’t pretend that Unite is the vanguard of the working class. It isn’t.

  • Lee Butcher

    Where to start with this flawed article?

    The accusation is that Unite fraudulently enrolled people, without their knowledge, to the Labour Party in order to use their votes to decide an election. If that happened in a actual election the Electoral Commission and quite probably the police would have something to say about it. Under such allegations it is only right that special measures be bought in and the process halted until an investigation is carried out. Transparency is essential, which is why it would be right to publish the report. If the Times front page today is accurate than this is a much bigger problem than just Falkirk.

    This has absolutely nothing to do with an “anti-working-class” sentiment among the party, and nothing to do with reviving CLPs. It is, if proven, straight forward vote rigging and ballot box stuffing.

    On a more minor note, you fill find that rotten boroughs were outlawed long before the Labour Party was established.

  • Felix

    What it is time for is for there to be a level playing field in candidate selection. Union-sponsored candidates have a distinctly unfair advantage over the rest of the field. Now as a party and union member, I have always understood that both organisations stood for equality of opportunity. This is clearly not the case in my seat which is currently selecting. The union sponsored candidate, also a union official, gets three months leave on full pay, a fully-funded full-time campaign manager, all leaflets paid for, a phone bank paid for and all other miscellaneous costs paid for and is even laying on union-funded transport to ferry her supporters to the hustings. With clout like that, any idiot could rig an election.

    Meanwhile the other candidates have to meet all their costs out of their own pockets, generally their savings. In no way can this be considered to be a fair democratic fight and the rules need to be changed urgently.

    • reformist lickspittle

      Ah diddums, a Progress stooge upset that their candidates are being routed in selections up and down the country. Boo hoo 😉

      Come back when your increasingly worthless organisation has something of interest of interest to say to the VAST MAJORITY of Labour members 😉

  • Mike Homfray

    How come the endless manipulations of the system by Progress and the Not Labour faction weren’t treated in the same way?

    • JohnPReid

      Progress got its members to join in bulk and used them to get someone elected ,did they?

      • Absolutely. Two people (at current counting) think that’s okay though judging by the down arrows.

      • Mike Homfray

        Yes

        • RAnjeh

          No they didn’t. Unite did.

    • reformist lickspittle

      Two wrongs don’t make a right, though. And as pointed out by yourself before now, Progress have been losing selections hand over fist recently 🙂

  • Oddly enough, support and influence go hand in hand, the tories (and lib-dems) confront the same issues. In a first past the post electoral system where winner takes all, it is no surprise that all sorts of shenanigans occur. And this will be exacerbated as party membership remains stagnant or is declining; small groups can capture disproportionate amounts of “political real estate”. No matter how well intentioned union influence was meant to be and regardless of whether rules were or were not broken, it is inconsistent to suggest that an undemocratic party will be a convincing champion of democracy. Furthermore, it will undermine any attempt at dealing with the job of holding the government to account. I think PMQs today has amply demonstrated that point. Labour need to clarify their relationship with the unions, quickly, and then get back to the business of politics.

  • Carolekins

    Right on: I’m fed up with the knee-jerk anti-trade union reaction and people like Mandelson, who were happy to use union connections in their own interest.

    • PaulHalsall

      How rich is he now?

      • JohnPReid

        18 hour days for 28 years work for labour including 5 on the EU, he’s probably deserved to earn a few bob

        • PaulHalsall

          He was getting paid £120-150k a year for much of that time.

          • Pete

            Len McCluskey is currently paid an estimated £130k as General Secretary of Unite; Derek Simpson was infamously earning substantially more in his last years. Contemporary union leaders are hardly poor themselves, if we’re going to reduce this debate to a question of who earns more.

  • althejazz

    We need the trade union input far more than we need the right wing anti trade untion rhetoric of milord Mandelson or any of the other pro-capitalist blairites. They are the people who have brought this party into disrepute and lead to people saying that the parties are all the same. The general public need a party that says we are on your side, but all we are getting is more of the the blairite whisperers who are frightened to confront the shysters that got this country into the mess we are in. The Labour party needs to make it clear that we represent the majority in this country i.e. the hard working people who actually create the nation’s wealth. They need to know that the party is no longer going to dance to the tune of the banksters and equity capitalists but is instead going to take them to the benefit of the rest of us. If these people want to go from this country, let them – they are no use to any of us, but let them go with just two suitcases while the wealth they have filched from the rest of us stays behind.

  • postageincluded

    Are you really saying that FPTP is responsible for these alleged “shenanigans”? Perhaps a little study of the current “Proportional Representation” politics of Russia, Hungary, Israel or Italy might be in order. If those are too exotic for you, why not take a close look across the Irish Sea at the supposed utopia produced there by Electoral Reform Society and Liberal Democrat approved STV system. The career of Charles Haughey might begood place to start. Or perhaps the politically sanctioned Magdalene Laundries and other clerical abuse scandals.

    Or perhaps you’re not that interested, being one of the PR faithful. Funny that an anarchist should be so devoted to a specific structure of government. But then, as a hard-line Trot once said to me back in the 70’s, “Anarchists are just Liberals in boots”.

    • I’ve looked very closely at my post and I don’t see that I have advocated a specific structure of government. I might concede that in any electoral system there is always the possibility of jiggery-pokery, and your examples amply demonstrate the imperfectibility of the electoral process. Nevertheless, my inclination is away from FPTP and towards PR. However, my main point is that Labour can do without having to respond to questions about their relationship with the unions.

  • John Ruddy

    Which is exactly what happened previously in Falkirk, when there was a stitch up to prevent Dennis Canavan standing for Holyrood.

    Thats why this seat is the last one I would pick if I, as a union, wanted to ensure my candidate to get in.

    In-ept doesnt begin to describe it.

    • SFC1k

      Aye, I remember the first Holyrood election: Dennis stood as an independent and the party ended up having to bus students in from Glasgow to campaign for the official candidate because the local members weren’t.

      The end result was Dennis elected and, when he retired, his replacement was SNP

  • ColinAdkins

    I am more worried about the Union of Oxbridge graduates (25% of MPs( than Unite.

  • Pingback: Socialist Unity | Debate & analysis for activists & trade unionists()

  • Ian Young

    Unite pulled strokes at Falkirk and deserve taking down a peg but I agree with the thrust of Mark’s article especially the media’s disdain for organised labour. Labour correspondents are virtually non existent and hardly touch on issues like social dumping (despite endlessly reporting about EU and immigration), zero hours contractors or vocational training needs (although even receiving A-level results are deemed to be a news story).

  • prisoner_zero

    labor was the party of the working man ,now its ran by uni-educated anti union brigade who have never seen a day of “Real work” a day in there life`s Ed really ???

  • prisoner_zero

    Len is right i have no chance of being a mp (i would like to be ) i just don`t have the connections or the money and that was the whole point of the labor movement
    but it seems to have turned in to a old boys club

    no wonder people are hard pressed to see a difference in labor and tory government`s

    same wall different paint

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