by Rob Marchant
This morning, Uncut reported developments in the Falkirk selection fiasco; Labour’s investigation confirmed that there was an attempt by Unite to recruit additional members in order to fix the selection. For a major union to intervene behind the scenes in the running of a selection may not be unheard of, but the careless and obvious entryist manner in which Labour implies it was carried out was, frankly, breath-taking.
Last weekend, further reports surfaced in the Times and the Mail on Sunday regarding the that Labour advisors Blue State Digital were arm-twisted by “a senior Labour figure” to lean on their employee to pull out and make way for a Unite-backed candidate, or risk losing their contract. Whoever the figure turns out to have been certainly has some very awkward questions to answer.
Essentially in denial over what happened, Unite’s woefully inadequate, “er, it was the Blairites wot did it” rebuttal brings to a head a power struggle which has been simmering ever since Miliband took the party’s reins.
But perhaps just as interesting was a less explosive, but not-entirely-unconnected event which happened last weekend, before all this became public.
The People’s Assembly, a new left project developing the anti-cuts argument to anti-austerity in general, had its debut in central London. Its only front-bench Labour attendance was from Diane Abbott, which gave a good indication of its political leanings.
The demo was largely peopled by the usual suspects from the hard left, who were also – as blogger Stephen Bush, in attendance, tweeted – not exactly representative of the ethnically and culturally diverse British electorate. At the moment the Assembly it is not even a party (although this did happen later with Respect).
As a rule, it is much better that such people develop their political ideas outside the Labour party than infiltrate it, and it seems safe to conclude that the Assembly is pretty much an irrelevance in terms of any direct effect on British politics. As, it seems, is the Left Unity project, triggered by filmmaker Ken Loach’s March call for a new left politics. They are the last in a long line of wildly over-optimistic attempts to realign the left.
What does all this mean for Labour? On the one hand, nothing. There is no “people’s army” about to storm the barricades and take Labour out at the next general election – at most there may be a new far-left grouping which might take some votes away in key marginals (and these would be more likely to take votes away from the now-declining Respect than Labour).
In short, the People’s Assembly has shown what “people’s politics” has become reduced to over the last few years: a few hard-left white men and women (and mostly men, we might reasonably conclude).
For the left mainstream, so far, so good.
On the other hand, it also poses a completely different problem for Labour. What is extraordinary, and few seem to have clocked, is the distance that union politics have gravitated to the left, and often cuddled up to the far left, in the last decade. In 2004, Respect was set up with considerably less support from major trade unions – it was a fringe organisation and, when it became a party, it was clear that membership was incompatible with support for Labour.
Last weekend we had what was essentially a comparable meeting of the crankier end of the political spectrum, but this time it was attended by the leaders of the country’s two largest unions and the TUC.
And, within that, the most clear danger was highlighted by a few words tweeted by Diane Abbott: “sponsored by Unite”. The Assembly is a political platform being created on the far left which has Unite and its new putative marriage partner, PCS, at its centre. It was also notable that the Assembly event had as many unions not affiliated to Labour as those affiliated, as evidenced by the motions of support listed here.
Now, the alleged Falkirk intervention, if it proves to be true, indicates that Unite is still very much interested in having its people within Labour, within the PLP. But it seems that there could also be a Plan B.
A few weeks ago, Uncut reported how McCluskey’s rift with Labour might be difficult to repair before the next election. The main thing Unite has to lose by disaffiliation is, self-evidently, any kind of influence in mainstream politics.
In an attempt to ameliorate this and therefore make his threats credible, McCluskey is also visibly taking a close interest in an alternative political power base, albeit a far less effective one than the Labour Party. If at any point he can convince his union that it can influence policy more outside the party than within it, there is no longer any reason to be affiliated.
But think about this: whilst this might be a difficult sell, on the far left, convincing yourself and your peers of something inherently counter-intuitive but which fits your collective worldview is hardly unknown. In fact, the far left could scarcely continue to exist, were it not for the psychological phenomenon of groupthink (lest we forget, McCluskey’s chief of staff is a surviving member of one of the last bastions of groupthink, the Communist Party of Britain).
It still looks unlikely that such a drastic action as disaffiliation could happen before the election but, especially after the events in Falkirk, it is certainly no longer unthinkable.
In the meantime, any perception of increased power in the negotiation for Unite will naturally be used to fuel the ongoing game of brinkmanship with Labour.. After it, and certainly when McCluskey retires, as will surely happen before long, there will surely be a day of reckoning in the Labour-Unite relationship, especially if he is replaced by Respect-supporting Mark Serwotka, of the non-affiliated PCS.
And if Unite should choose to jump ship before 2015, that would be one hell of a stick to put in Labour’s electoral spokes.
Has Miliband the nerve to stand his ground?
Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour Party manager who blogs at The Centre Left