07 Sep 2013
September 7, 2013

Falkirk West: Constituency Unite Party?

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Here are a few thoughts in the wake of Labour’s apparent decision on Falkirk West that no rules have been broken by anyone connected to Unite, or anyone else, ever, capisce?

The local complaints about Unite amongst Labour members were initially that the Scottish Chair of Unite, Stephen Deans, who became chair of Falkirk West Constituency Labour Party after I left, had recruited an enormous number of new members at his workplace, with Unite paying their membership fees, in order to completely dominate the selection of my successor. Constituency meetings were cancelled at short notice. Branch secretaries were allegedly unable to get hold of the current membership lists needed in order to convene branch meetings. The Vice-chair of the CLP resigned, citing a feeling of deep discomfort at meetings.

These complaints were, in the end, political. A trade union paying for mass recruitment in order to dominate a selection contest was allowed under Labour party rules. The complaints were therefore about how regular members were being displaced altogether through a strategy executed by Unite’s leadership, aimed at driving the party left and imposing a close friend as the local candidate.

This, while not very nice, is normal politics, and it was clear that Stephen Deans was, on behalf of his Union leadership, out-organising long-serving local members.

The situation took on a new dimension when it emerged that a number of people, mainly from a small number of families, had made formal statements that they had been ‘signed up’ to Labour Party membership without their knowledge. Some of these ‘signings’ were alleged to have taken place in a pub in the ‘world UFO’ capital of Bonnybridge rather than at Stephen Deans’s workplace.  If true, this was a significant breach of party rules.

The Labour Party in due course conducted an inquiry.  The inquiry team members gathered evidence by, amongst other things, interviewing the complainants. When the inquiry reported, Ed Miliband made it clear that he was convinced that serious abuses had taken place, and he acted accordingly. He made a powerful speech, instigated historical change in the party’s relationship with the trade unions and suspended Deans from the party.

It has now emerged that the key complainants, who reiterated their complaints several times over a lengthy period, appear to have withdrawn their original statements and substituted them with new statements which do not indicate wrongdoing. This left the party with the choice of pressing ahead, taking note of the change of evidence but drawing obvious inferences from the original statements; or finding that in the light of the new situation they had to find that no misdemeanours had occurred after all. It’s chosen the latter option. It’s hard to criticise Ed Miliband on this basis, since most people would consider his decision natural justice in the light of the new statements.

There are still some outstanding issues to be cleared up, of course. Were party rules breached by the signing up of people who appeared not to be present at the addresses given for them? Were some people signed up to Unite and the Labour Party at the same time, under the Union scheme, also potentially in breach of party rules?  Were complainants visited by Unite representatives or lawyers in order to persuade them to change their testimony? Or were these all imaginary things that never happened at all?

These questions, however, are largely irrelevant now. So, in addition, is the matter of the Information Commissioner’s likely investigation into the potential misuse of data by Unite in Scotland. Unite put its hands up to an ‘error’ right away; Unite in Scotland has weak administration and most people in any case accept that with selections membership data is freely traded by people who fancy their chances.

Unite is home and dry, at least as far as Falkirk is concerned. In Scotland, the legal system still deploys the term ‘not proven’ from time to time and some commentators have mooted whether this applies to the Falkirk business. In truth, ‘not proven’ is designed to cast an aspersion when most people would consider anything other than ‘guilty’ or ‘innocent’ to be unfair on anyone facing allegations of any sort. Labour has announced, with no uncertainty, that no wrongdoing took place. The only consistent and fair course now is to cancel ‘special measures’, allow Stephen Deans to take his place as CLP chair once again and in addition allow the very large number of people he recruited, many of them a year before the now-imminent selection, to vote in a selection process which he personally oversees.

In other words, the Unite leadership, Tom Watson MP (who has championed their case) and likely Unite’s lawyers have won a striking victory over the Labour Party apparatus. Unite is in charge in Falkirk.

I don’t doubt that Unite’s leadership would accept that there was some cack-handedness at the local level, and that this contributed to them being apparently two sets down when the original report came out.  But when push came to shove, Unite and its allies performed like Roger Federer on top form and the Labour Party took the part of a plucky lesser player who’d started well only to end up being rolled-over by a far superior performer once the latter’s game had hotted up.

Many, decent, Labour/Unite MPs will breathe a sigh of relief at not having to choose which epithet commands their greater allegiance. A measure of change will be agreed at Labour conference. Money issues will be broadly fixed. Some will say that while the outcome of the Falkirk imbroglio is not as Labour would have wanted, the episode has served to show how Ed Miliband is unafraid to challenge the Unions.

However, instead of standing as the catalyst for changes that would have helped Labour win the next election, Falkirk will become the symbol of how, when the chips are down, Labour cannot defeat a powerful, determined and capable trade union opponent who openly declares a separate political agenda from Labour’s leadership.

The overlap between the trades unions and the Labour Party is considerable – they share the same broad social objectives and this puts them largely on the same page politically. Unite’s leadership, though, seems to be following a course aimed at changing this; one which is rooted in Ed Miliband’s defeat at an election which is his to win, followed potentially by the creation of a new political party (see the latter few paragraphs of this Guardian piece).

Perhaps that’s just the pipe-dream of a Union baron having his own moment of hubris.  The venom of senior Unite officials and the fear stalking many Labour MPs suggests not.