Disunity at Unite means trouble for Labour

by Atul Hatwal

Yesterday’s sudden departure of Unite’s long standing national political director, Steve Hart, was enough to make head’s turn in Labour leadership circles. That he then followed up with a tweet (now deleted) saying he was told that he was “too close to Labour,” will have set alarm bells ringing.

Given the apparent reason for Hart’s ejection, his replacement, Jennie Formby, seems an odd choice. Unlike Hart she sits on Labour’s ruling National Executive Committee. In terms of Labour’s structures, it’s difficult to be any closer to the party.

However, the organisation chart does not tell the real story of what has happened.

Three factors seem to have been pivotal in Steve Hart’s downfall: clashes at the top of Unite over the union’s proximity to Labour, Ed Balls’ speech last week and the fall-out from Unite’s ham fisted attempts at fixing candidate selections, particularly in London for the European elections.

Steve Hart has been at the heart of London Labour politics for over a decade, having forged close relations with Ken Livingstone’s mayoral administration. When Livingstone’s former chief of staff, Simon Fletcher moved in to a senior position at the London Labour party before the last election, Hart’s influence increased.

When the continuity Kennites took control of key positions in the London Labour party after the general election, Steve Hart’s role in London Labour grew.

And when Simon Fletcher joined Ed Miliband’s office with responsibility for union liaison, earlier this year, Hart’s personal connections extended right to the top of the party.

But unions are jealous, internecine places. Their internal politics are largely masked to the outside world but as with all large organisations, the competition and back stabbing are vicious.

Steve Hart’s increasing influence would not have been welcome, particularly to those on the left of the union vying for control of Unite’s political direction.

Len McCluskey’s chief of staff, Andrew Murray, is a card carrying member for the Communist Party of Britain and no friend to Labour.

Merger talks with the PCS union are advancing, and Mark Serwotka, the comparatively youthful general secretary of PCS has been scathing about the party’s acceptance of austerity and helped ensure there is no move to affiliation with the Labour party.

And in the recent leadership election in Unite, Jerry Hicks’ one man challenge from the left was built on opposing Unite’s unconditional support for Labour. The rise in his vote, from 22% when he ran against Len McCluskey in 2010 to 35% in 2013 is indicative of a union rank and file that is headed left.

In this context, Ed Balls’ speech last week was an incendiary intervention. The commitment to Tory spending plans for the first year of the new parliament cut the ground from underneath those, like Steve Hart, in the union advocating working through Labour.

For the left within Unite, the proposition is now simple: if the union’s Labour loyalists could not prevent the party from committing to Tory spending plans, with all of the painful cuts that this will entail, then what is the point of their strategy?

It was notable that while Len McCluskey busily tweeted his approval of Ed Miliband’s welfare speech last week, there was radio silence on Ed Balls’ earlier effort.

When Uncut contacted the Unite press office last week about whether the union would be commenting on Labour’s commitment to Tory spending plans, the enigmatic response was that, “a considered statement would be made in time.”

In contrast to Steve Hart, although Jennie Formby sits on the NEC, she is  a leading light in a left wing faction of Unite called United Left.

United Left have grown rapidly in influence within Unite since their founding in 2010 and place far greater emphasis on independent action. The type of independent action that Unite will be taking if a Labour government tried to implement the cuts Ed Balls committed to last week.

Despite the  personal enmities and Ed Balls’ change in Labour’s fiscal direction, there was still a chance Hart could have survived. But  he was already dangerously low on political capital within the union.

Steve Hart was national political director of a political operation that is seen to be misfiring. The fiasco over the selection of Labour’s European candidates is symptomatic of a wider problem.

The issue for Hart within the union is not the fixing – no one in the union disagrees with the goal of installing Unite placemen and women as Labour candidates.

The problem has been the scrutiny and headlines generated by the clumsy nature of the fixing. Motions criticising the selection process have rippled across London CLPs with the row making front page news in the national press.

Len McCluskey has had to publicly defend Unite’s conduct and the union has become embroiled in a running row that has made Unite activity in candidate selection an increasingly sensitive topic within the Labour party.

This is not how a political operation is meant to work. The dark arts require shadows, not the harsh spotlight of national newspaper stories.

For Labour, Steve Hart’s removal is likely to presage a new relationship with Unite. Despite Len McCluskey’s warm words for Ed Miliband’s speech last week, the elephant in the room is Ed Balls’ commitment to Tory spending plans.

Given Len McCluskey’s re-election platform within Unite, not to mention the impending PCS merger, any move by Labour to implement Tory spending plans – even committments to specific cuts, in opposition, that would hit union members – will spark a bitter fight .

In this light, the removal of Steve Hart appears to be an ominous first move by Unite in  preparation for a conflict to come.

Atul Hatwal is editor at Uncut

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4 Responses to “Disunity at Unite means trouble for Labour”

  1. ian Johnstone says:

    Dear All

    Please stop the infighting now We require solidarity and the universal commitment to fighting the Right within the Tories and impair their long term goal to reduce all who have little to have less and those who have most to gain more SO stop the bickering and begin to address the issues the vast majority of people need to be corrected before doffing ones cap if one can afford one to all those who perceive that it is their right to be acknowledged as superior becomes the normal Again!

  2. paul landau says:

    It’s all in a name surely……Unite – not divide!

  3. Paul says:

    Len McCluskey has been surrounding himself with his own people ever since he took charge as the General Secretary of Unite 2yrs ago, everyone one else has been tolerated at first then they have departed (if you need proof just look at whose who in the hierarchy, where they came from and whose been promoted and whose been demoted).
    The bungled attempts to gerrymander the Falkirk Labour party candidate selection process has run into the realms of illegal activity and fraud and therefore in order to ensure that no one digs to deep into how corrupt the Falkirk issue is, attention is being diverted away from the issue of Falkirk by getting rid of Steve Hart and replacing him with someone a bit closer to McCluskey who will keep all the dark secrets safe.

  4. John Reid says:

    Two Livingstone aids using their links to Unite to tell Ed what to do ate a disaster actually if the PCS does join with unite,and distance themselves from Labour it might be the only way to continue,

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