The best-informed comment so far on Falkirk. Re-blogged from Left Futures
By Jon Lansman
The contents of the secret report into what happened in Falkirk have now been revealed. Seumas Milne in the Guardian comments that “given the thin gruel offered up by way of evidence” it’s not hard to see why it hasn’t been published. Nevertheless, the report does find that Unite is not directly responsible for what took place, which makes the direct attack by Ed Miliband on Len McCluskey even harder to understand (“Len McCluskey should be facing up to his responsibilities. He should not be defending the machine politics involving bad practice and malpractice that went on there, he should be facing up to it“). And the paucity of evidence of “serious wrongdoing” makes it even harder to understand now why the matter was reported to the Police than when we previously commented, unless it was a deliberate attempt to escalate the conflict still further to justify a fundamental reform of the party-union relationship.
According to Seumas Milne:
The most significant allegations are that a handful of members were signed up without their knowledge (by family members), and that “there are discrepancies in the signatures” of four others (suggesting some may have been forged).
It isn’t right to sign up family members to a political party without their knowledge but it undoubtedly happens in every winnable constituency in the country in every party. It clearly isn’t what Unite intended, and you can’t expect Unite’s leaders to have been aware that it happened.
Nor is it right to “forge” signatures but, if the person concerned wanted and intended to join the party, it isn’t “serious wrongdoing” . This is the action of one or two individuals rather than Unite and it certainly isn’t something to waste police time over.
So we can now see why Unite centrally had no idea what they had done wrong. And what was done wrong certainly doesn’t justify the biggest-ever shake up of the party-union relationship by a Labour leader. And yet some people on the right of the party are still claiming:
For all the talk of democracy and the new politics, this was only ever about dealing with the fall-out from Falkirk.
That is nonsense. I was at the Progress annual conference at Congress House in London on 11 May. An afternoon workshop entitled “How do we get a parliament that looks more like Britain?” had a constructive debate about the lack of working class MPs whose participants had included our own Michael Meacher and Steve Hart, then Unite’s political director, but, by the day’s end, that all fell apart.
In the final plenary of the conference, following a question from blogger Emma Burnell about “what unites Progress and Unite” Peter Mandelson chose to make a direct attack on Unite instead. “Too many” selections for European of Westminster parliament candidates were being put in the hands of “one union at worst, a couple of unions at best, orchestrated by a cabal of NEC members,” he said. In response to union pressure for more working class candidates, he said it was it was wrong to conflate trade unionists and the working classes and mocked the selection of trade union officials.
Mandelson also specifically mentioned the Falkirk selection (in which Progress was backing Gregor Poynton) as well as the selection of MEP candidates (in which Progress was backing candidates everywhere). Whilst a row about the European selection process had been rumbling on for several weeks by then (it started here and Left Futures’ contribution is here) and complaints about the Falkirk selection process had been reported in the Scottish press since March 2013, Falkirk had not until then been mentioned in the English press. However, the following day a lengthy piece by Patrick Wintour appeared on the Guardian website suggesting that a detailed briefing had been provided by Peter Mandelson or Progress or both, and that the matter had not been mentioned by accident.
Wintour deals at length with the Falkirk selection even though at that point the row was mainly about the proposal to have an all-women shortlist (which would exclude the Progress candidate) and the accompanying accusations of manipulation (which does indeed happen by all sections of the movement and all factions in almost all selections). Although the party had decided to tighten up the procedures by asking a number of recent applicants including many of those recruited by Unite, to complete direct debit mandates, the issues raised in the recent secret report had not arisen.
Wintour also quotes from a number of Unite executive minutes and reports (not normally in the public domain) about the implementation of the Unite political strategy and of the sort later leaked to Guido Fawkes. He also raises other selections including that in Ilford North where Unite was backing an activist from its London taxi section and Progress was backing local councillor and former leading Labour student, Wes Streeting.
From then on, interventions by Blairites associated with Progress continued, especially after the Labour executive’s organisation committee in mid-May not only endorsed an all-women shortlist for Falkirk (once the membership issues had been resolved) and the shortlists for the European selections, but also revised the selections procedure to reintroduce nominations. This increased the involvement of party members and was opposed by Progress (which they pretended was as a result of the length of the process).
The statements on Falkirk and Unite’s political strategy of Blairite stalwarts such as Mandelson, Blunkett and Reid reached its crescendo in the last two weeks, assisted by the private press briefings of shadow cabinet members, notably Douglas Alexander and Jim Murphy. The leak of Unite documents to Guido Fawkes which are likely to have come from the same sources as those provided to Patrick Wintour was guaranteed to fuel Tory pressure on Ed Miliband (as well as risking damage to Labour’s public image). And the campaign had clearly started before any of the issues highlighted in Labour’s secret report had come to light.
There is no secret that the Blairites have always wanted to end the union link. Tony Blair repeated yesterday that reform of Labour’s relationship with the unions as “long overdue”, and said he should have enacted such reforms during his premiership. The Progress campaign was also aimed at Unite and Len McCluskey from the beginning, before anything was known about any real irregularities (although the Progress candidate did of course know that he had himself recruited 11 members paid for with his personal cheque).
From the beginning, this was politics at its dirtiest. Throw enough mud and some of it will stick.
Unite was playing a critical role in close alliance with the constituency left within the party at a time when the Left had the strength again to exert some influence. Unite was also at the heart of the anti-austerity movement when the two Eds had finally been persuaded to espouse the economic course Progress had been urging. And McCluskey and his supporters had demonstrated their solid support in the union, and their hold was guaranteed for another five years.
Progress had nothing to lose and much to gain. The potential damage to Labour was the least of their concerns. The greatest disappointment is that they able to push Ed Miliband so far.