The Falkirk War: a perfect storm in a teacup

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Labour leader Ed Miliband (Image: Telegraph)

Politics has a tendency of putting little-known locations on the map. The day after Gordon Brown called some bigoted woman a bigoted woman, a far greater number of people suddenly knew where Rochdale was. Islington’s Granita restaurant is remembered as the place where the deal was sealed for Blair to lead the Labour Party to its 1997 landslide. This time it is a small city in the Scottish Lowlands that has been thrust in the limelight by Labour intrigue, in a story that has exploded across the national press. Following Eric Joyce being forced to step aside for, among other things, headbutting a Tory MP (which seems to be the closest the Parliamentary Labour Party get to seriously attempting to oppose or hurt the government), the selection process got underway for Falkirk’s next Labour MP. I say ‘next Labour MP’ because it is a foregone conclusion, the seat is safer than Fort Knox.

The row that broke out over influence within the Labour Party between Ed Miliband and the trade unions was manna from heaven for every right-of-centre hack on the payroll. ‘Is [the Labour Party] it to fall ever further under the sway of its union paymasters, as the mere tool of narrow, sectarian militancy?’ thundered the Mail’s RightMinds. In an almost identical turn of phrase, the Telegraph’s comment section alleges that Falkirk ‘has exposed the re-emergence of Labour’s union paymasters as powerbrokers in the party.’ People that will never vote Labour in their lives – including half the Tory benches- are taking it upon themselves to write exactly what policy turn the party should take. The surreal part is that their ranks are swelled by senior Labour figures. Dan Hodges took to the Telegraph to essentially echo the conservative position; that the unions are mounting an undemocratic bid to gain control of the party, one that must be stopped.

Now, the recruitment of some two hundred new Labour members by Unite, with their subscriptions collectively paid (though not necessarily by the union) might sound like not the best form of political practice. But it is certainly not illegal- the casual throwing around of terms like ‘vote-rigging’ implies that Unite has somehow subverted the election through fraud and coercion in a copycat style of post-Soviet elective authoritarian regimes. For all the righteousness of the claims of Hodges, Miliband and the rest of Labour’s conservatives, they cannot talk about internal democracy when they have spent the last decade and a half stripping the party of what little it possessed. A Labour Party member I know points out ‘the party’s willingness to attack the trade unions who founded and fund the Labour Party, but not the party within the Labour Party, Progress. They are funded by billionaire Lord Sainsbury, and they have won far more selections then Unite or any other union in recent years.’ A rifle through the New Labour record will reveal a wealth of cases in which members of the carefully-groomed elite of careerists close to the party bureaucracy have been airlifted into safe seats in the North and Scotland utterly over the heads of the local population and local party. I would be surprised if many of these politicians had even visited their constituencies prior to their deployment by whatever real-life Malcolm Tuckers pull the strings.

Two of Young Labour’s chiefs recently voted against their own pledge to introduce committee elections in which all Young Labour members had a vote. One-member-one-vote does also not exist for Labour’s conference arrangements committee, essentially tasked with establishing the shape of the party’s annual discussion.  This from the people who opposed the trade union block vote in Labour leadership elections! Party branches and affiliates remain unable to interview potential candidates and offer proper scrutiny. At last year’s National Policy Forum, members’ opinions were squashed and policy essentially written and rolled out in secret, the sovereignty of conference severely undermined. In student unions, Labour Students all too often operate as a thinly-concealed dominant faction, replicating the bureaucratic machinery of their elders at the expense of voters. If Ed Miliband and the cabal of Blairites and neo-Blairites controlling the party are serious about Labour being run by its members and immune to special interests, many of them would not have their jobs in the first place.

It might be enough to say that in the face of Labour’s internal culture, it is unsurprising that the unions adopt similarly shady tactics to win out of necessity. And yet that would imply a nonexistent moral equivalence. As Axel Landin, a Labour member at Selwyn College, Cambridge points out, ‘People complain that union influence in the party is out of kilter with the proportion of union members in today’s workforce, but surely the answer to that is to encourage people to join trade unions? What’s so sinister about the idea of workers having rights?’ The Labour Party was after all formed out of a TUC conference at the turn of the century; its vision was to be the party of organised labour. These days Blair’s ‘big tent’ has become an oversized marquee, in which the party has stretched to become all-inclusive to the point at which it forgets any notion of political clarity. The truth of the matter is that on one side we have a trade union movement that represents six million people and would represent more if it were not for a continual discourse of anti-union slurs in which again, senior Labour figures join. On the other we have a political force that by out-of-touch cliques. As Max Shanly, Southeast Young Labour’s representative puts it, ‘the trade unions provide a moral compass for the Labour Party and keep them grounded in the lives of ordinary people. Without their input there is no reason why the Labour Party could not in a few years be funded solely by bankers, billionaires, and big business and working solely in their interest.’ One looks at the choice of associates of recent Labour leaders – Murdoch’s empire, for instance- and such an assertion does not seem unrealistic.

It is not as if Unite general secretary Len McCluskey has made any serious attempt to ‘take control’ of the Labour Party, as the right have suggested. It is no surprise that when funding the party with £8million – and no, that is not equivalent to an investment bank that does not represent thousands of ordinary workers funding the Tories- Unite may want some influence. Yet inside the union, those who oppose McCluskey are clear; union members are not getting their money’s worth. Labour is decidedly wagging the unions and not the other way around. Even the unions themselves are hardly socialist firebrands- Dave Prentis and the Unison leadership essentially meekly accepted the government’s controversial pension cuts and an effective pay cut for its members. Meanwhile, the vacillation of the Labour leadership leaves the party unable to provide any alternative to the Conservatives. In the month that George Osborne has been forced to admit that borrowing has in fact increased, as jobs seem to shrink by the day, as people are driven to suicide by benefit cuts, as hundreds-long queues of people who couldn’t afford council tax spring up outside courts across the country, as international students may be forced to pay £200 to see a doctor and the student loan book is to be privatised and as even the IMF are saying we need a Plan B, one might think Labour would be exploiting the situation for all it was worth. Instead they prefer to attack those within their own ranks arguing for a genuine opposition and attempting to widen the party’s breadth of opinion. They refuse to commit to overturning a single Tory cut. If the incumbent government win the next election, it will not be anything to do with incidents like Falkirk. It will not be the fault of the unions, and it will not be a Conservative victory when Ed Miliband has already surrendered. It will be the consequence of Blair’s heirs’ talent at squandering almost every political opportunity for the Labour Party that presents itself.