by Atul Hatwal
Yesterday evening, as politicians and the media prepared for today’s debate on the spending review, Labour’s press office found the ideal time to bury some bad news.
The result of the NEC inquiry into the Falkirk West parliamentary selection was finally announced.
The party has decided that the surge in Unite members joining the local party was sufficiently suspicious to warrant action.
Falkirk West CLP has been placed in “special measures” and members who joined the party after March 12th last year (the date Eric Joyce MP announced he would be stepping down) will now not be eligible to participate in the parliamentary candidate selection, which rules out the new Unite caucus.
Effectively, the party has found Unite guilty of entryism.
It’s a major decision to accuse Labour’s biggest donor of packing a constituency with ringers and trying to subvert a parliamentary selection, but one that was inescapable given the facts.
Uncut understands that in the last three months of 2012, the membership of Falkirk West CLP increased by over half – from 200 members, it grew by 130 to 330.
These weren’t members attracted by the magic of Arnie Graf’s community organising, or an inspirational Ed Miliband speech.
They were shipped in, en masse, by Unite.
In October last year, Labour party HQ started to receive packs of membership forms accompanied by a single cheque, cut by the union, to pay for all of the members’ annual subscriptions.
As the forms piled up at head office in Brewers Green in London, party officials started to get nervous.
Normally, membership applications are processed within days and contact is quickly made by the party with the new member.
Not so for Falkirk West.
A Labour official speaking off the record to Uncut was clear about the suspicious nature of what was happening, “the only time this sort of thing has gone on has been either in places like Tower Hamlets or Birmingham, or way back in the 1980s when Militant was active”
The forms kept arriving but nothing was processed. Instead, worried officials sat on them. Experience told them that this was an attempt to rig the constituency vote in the run up to a parliamentary selection.
But Unite is a powerful presence in the Labour party.
Not only is the union Labour’s largest funder, the general secretary, Len McCluskey, is a former flatmate of Labour campaigns’ supremo, Tom Watson. In the case of Falkirk West, the links were even stronger given Unite’s preferred candidate, Karie Murphy, is employed by Tom Watson as his office manager and is also close to Len McCluskey.
Months passed since the first of the new member applications had been submitted and still the officials prevaricated, trapped between their concerns and the wrath of Unite.
Then, mysteriously, at the start of this year, the impasse was broken: all of the memberships were approved.
Uncut understands that pressure was brought to bear on party officials from senior political figures in the national party to set aside their worries, ignore any questions and process the applications.
They were further instructed to back-date the applications so that memberships began when the forms were sent in, rather than when they were approved. This was necessary to ensure these new recruits would have been members long enough to be eligible to take part in a potential parliamentary selection in March.
Yesterday’s imposition of “special measures” has brought all of this to a halt. It has set an important precedent, clearly defining the type of recruitment that Unite were engaged in as entryism.
But in doing so, it raises several important new questions . Three in particular stand out.
First, who intervened at head office to pressure party officials to approve the memberships? Unite did not act in a vacuum. They have been encouraged and facilitated by senior party figures. Whoever became involved on Unite’s behalf to push through the contentious applications has been complicit in breaking the Labour party’s rules at the highest level.
Second, is this happening elsewhere? Records of a recent Unite council meeting cite their activity in Falkirk West as a model for use across the country,
“Last but very much not least, is the exemplary Falkirk. A seat where a candidate selection, to replace the disgraced Eric Joyce, is reasonably imminent…Using similar methods to Garston and Paisley, but at a much more intense level, led by the potential candidate, and very much supported by the local activist base, especially at Ineos [local employer] we have recruited well over 100 Unite members to the party in a constituency with less than 200 members.”
If the party judges Unite to have crossed the line in Falkirk West, what about other seats where Unite have been recruiting new members in this manner? Will the party be looking at suspicious activity in these seats?
And third, what happens if and when Unite do this again? The union issued a typically defiant statement last night, saying, “Unite rejects the decisions taken today by the Labour Party in relation to the Falkirk West selection process… The intervention by Party officials into this process has been driven by Blairite pressure to exclude trade unionists from any influence in the Party”
That is not the statement of a union acknowledging wrong doing or backing down. Is the party prepared to stand firm on the principle established in Falkirk West and respond robustly to Unite’s statement by making it clear any future repetition will be dealt with equally strongly?
Falkirk West might now be free to proceed with a fairer selection, but until these questions are answered, the same issues will keep recurring and causing Labour problems as selections in vacant safe seats continue.
Atul Hatwal is editor at Uncut