As the party looks forward to conference season, there’s unfinished business over Falkirk

by Rob Marchant

There is a distant rumbling going on within the labour movement, with parliament in recess and the media in silly season, which will surely last until conference. It may, in fact, last until next Spring’s special conference. Or it may even last until the next general election.

Perhaps thanks to the timely intervention of the summer holidays, the media circus seems to have moved on from the Falkirk selection debacle.

But not so fast. This one will continue to rumble, and the reason is simple: we have ended the current chapter with two poles of the Labour party power structure effectively giving diametrically opposing versions of events, and both cannot be right.

This uneasy truce is neither sustainable in the long-term – truth will invariably out – nor making for anything like a trusting relationship in the near future.

To recap: Miliband has supported his party organisation, who seem to be telling him that Unite made moves to fix the selection. Len McCluskey, on the other hand, denies any wrongdoing whatsoever on the part of his union. He, along with various other party figures, is asking for the report of the party’s internal investigation to be published.

This is in spite of the fact that some clear facts are known: that people were signed up as party members without their knowledge and that the clear beneficiary was Karie Murphy, described by Channel 4 as a “close friend” of McCluskey and office manager to Tom Watson MP, his friend and former flatmate. The chair of Unite in Scotland, Stephen Deans, also happened to be, very handily, the chair of Falkirk West constituency Labour party.

We may never know the full contents of that report; if it has not been published or leaked by now, it seems pretty likely that it never will be. It is also completely understandable why: it would very likely cause a massive and unwanted row between the two sides.

Miliband is stuck. One cannot help speculating that McCluskey is perhaps only calling for it to be published out of pure brinkmanship, because he knows that Miliband will not do it. But whatever the answer, the report itself is now key.

In the midst of all of this, BBC Radio 4 made a rather intriguing recent programme called “Fight over Falkirk”. Intriguing because its “storm in a teacup” conclusion seemed to go directly against what insiders have been saying for weeks.

The three key BBC claims were: one, that at least some of irregularities were not down to recruitment through Unite’s Union Join scheme anyway; two, that the NEC didn’t see the full report, only a damning executive summary; and three, that the body of the report didn’t seem to support that summary.

The first of these is straightforward; there are many ways to influence selections, including for the recruitment to be done within the normal party application procedure, thereby also making them more difficult to trace (if you want examples of how this is possible, try the other thirteen constituencies in “special measures”). The key question is clearly which candidate would have benefitted, not which scheme they joined under.

Second, the reason why the NEC was not given a copy of the sensitive full report is blindingly obvious. The NEC is leaky as a sieve and stuffed full of union delegates, including three from Unite; not exactly the way to keep a secret. Speed was also of the essence, another reason not to take a detailed report through sub-committees. It does not mean the decision was not right.

The third issue is fascinating, that the full report supposedly disagreed with the executive summary. And that is because it seems that no-one willing to speak about it has even seen the full report. So no-one can vouch for those vital differences claimed by the BBC. Not even, apparently, Hannah Barnes, who made the programme, or Channel 4’s Michael Crick, who tweeted that he had “talked to people” who had seen it.

No-one except, it transpires, for one journalist, called as the star witness by the BBC, who had seen it (but apparently not been given a copy to leak, so the story could have been verified). Who could this ruthlessly objective investigative reporter be?

Step forward, Seumas Milne of the Guardian. Among other things, like McCluskey, long-time speaker at Stop the War Coalition rallies; apologist for unpleasant regimes in Iran and Gaza; a man who memorably claimed that Al Qaeda were not motivated by “a hatred of western freedoms and way of life” (indeed, perish the thought). You get the picture, but a potted history of the Milne journalistic and political oeuvre can be found here.

Milne is also on the advisory panel of the Unite backed think-tank, CLASS, run out of its Holborn offices. It’s not as if he and McCluskey don’t both know who the other is, or that their political views are far apart. Most importantly of all, Milne is someone it is difficult to imagine saying a bad word about McCluskey or Unite – in fact, he wrote a glowing report of McCluskey’s election in 2010 – although Uncut would be delighted to hear any cases of this happening. Just for balance.

So, in the BBC interview clip – gosh, what a surprise! – Milne claims that this “hoo-hah” is based on “a relative handful of cases” and summarily blames the whole thing on the “Blairite wing” of the party. Yes, we are back to the tediously familiar “Blairite conspiracy” narrative, despite the inconvenient fact that most left in 2010, and that Miliband and his inner circle are self-evidently not Blairites.

Ok, we understand that the dull intricacies of selection processes might not be easy to grasp for even a political journalist. But the third point seems merely poor judgement: why would you base such a crucial part of your evidence on the testimony of one person already known to be sympathetic?

To be fair, the media operation was wholly professional. After its airing, various McCluskey supporters immediately took to Twitter to demand an apology for the terrible way Unite had been treated. Blogger Owen Jones (for a short time employed as a freelance adviser at CLASS), was one of the first. McCluskey himself, having by that point already committed himself to Miliband’s proposals to reform the relationship with unions, stood back and let others do his fighting for him.

So, the situation remains unresolved and, as we approach conference season, is looking highly likely to remain so. But the fact remains that Miliband said, as Channel 4’s Michael Crick reported, that Unite recruited people as Labour members without their knowledge.

Either Miliband or McCluskey must be being economical, as they say, with the truth.

Further, the bizarre corollary of the BBC report is this: that Miliband has deliberately blown this up to look for a showdown. Uncut criticises Miliband often enough, when he deserves it – but who could be daft enough to think he was spoiling for a fight? A man less likely to pick a fight with a union leader it’d be hard to find.

And the police not taking action in Falkirk is irrelevant: what is relevant is whether party rules were being broken (they were).

The boundaries between party and union blurred (as the BBC reported, Unite even brazenly paid for a survey to ask members if they would mind having an All Women Shortlist, which would have been a great help to Murphy. How can that be fair?). Of course the party is to blame, too, for letting this go on under its very nose. But no, “move along, nothing to see” will just not cut it at this point.

Oh, and that distant rumbling in the background? That’s the sound of unfinished business.

Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour Party manager who blogs at The Centre Left


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23 Responses to “As the party looks forward to conference season, there’s unfinished business over Falkirk”

  1. Political Trainspotter says:

    Wade through the usual Marchant New Labour blether and you might eventually discern the relevant bit: “some clear facts are known: that people were signed up as party members without their knowledge and that the clear beneficiary was Karie Murphy”

    Well, sort of “known”. These people were apparently signed up for membership by their family members, and that not just Karie Murphy but other candidates benefited. With that in mind, no wonder Miliband won’t publish a report which shows the whole “blame Unite and use it as an excuse to ditch the union” spiel originated in a situation where Unite were far from the only beneficiaries (and indeed probably had no knowledge of the fraudulent memberships).

    To release the report would undermine the whole tissue of lies and tabloid innuendo which next year’s Special Conference is based on, not to mention rendering irrelevant all the chip wrappers filed by Labour Uncut types demanding Unite is brought to heel…

  2. Henrik says:

    @Po0litical Trainspotter: I’m sure this is all infinitely fascinating to hard-Left activists and Trade Union officials alike and it’s jolly important that the good name of the Union(s) not be sullied by allegations of corruption and dodgy dealings… but, I’m afraid, this member of the great British public has already come to the conclusion that if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks much like a duck, then it probably is a duck.

    Absent any truly compelling evidence to the contrary – and attempts to obscure or complicate the issue notwithstanding, there is none to hand – it looks very much as if the union(s) did, indeed, try to manipulate the selection process for yet another Labour clone candidate.

    Now, I don’t much care about that, it’s for Labour to work out its own rituals and you guys can slaughter chickens and base selections on what you read in the entrails for all I care, but for the love of God, don’t insult my intelligence by pretending this was something it clearly wasn’t.

    Labour and the unions have a long, rich and complex history and both sides should be enormously proud of much of it. Without the unions, there would be no Labour Party and hence no voice for the working man and woman. Without Labour, the unions would be Ribbonmen or Luddites, with no grasp of concepts such as “don’t close your employer down, if you do that, your moral victory won’t pay your bills”.

    You do need to sort out who’s calling the tune, though. If the unions are going to influence Labour policy as much as they clearly want to, fine – but all sides need to be open about it. That’s the least the electorate – remember them? – deserves. If a vote for Labour is a vote for McCluskey, fine, then let’s hear the good reasons why we should all vote Labour. Let’s hear the policies, the visions- oh, wait a second, you’re all too busy with your civil war to do anything like, you know, try to win an election.

  3. MarkAustin says:

    I would like to pick up on one point: the attempt to smear Seumas Milne by association over his opinions on Islamic terrorism. He is one of the few commentators who makes the point that Al Qiada (sp?) have a political purpose, and that the attempts top charactarise their actions as “motivated by “a hatred of western freedoms and way of life”” is a way of avoiding addressing to political issues. Indeed, his whole Guardian article, linked to above, is an elegant statemnt of this. Finally, we even have bin Laden’s word on this: he once said that if he was motivated by a hatred of democracy, he would attack Sweden.

  4. Matt says:

    “These people were apparently signed up for membership by their family members…”

    Apparently. That’s an interesting weaselly sort of a word.

    Or they were signed up by someone pretending to be a relation?

    Or signed up by just anyone?

    In any case, pretending to be someone else for the purposes of making it look as if they were doing something they didn’t do and might not want to do is wrong.

  5. swatantra says:

    ‘ …. the reason why the NEC was not given a copy of the sensitive full report is blindingly obvious. The NEC is leaky as a sieve and stuffed full of union delegates ….’
    All the more reason why EdM needs top get to grips with Labour Pary Reform from top to bottom; and the composition of the NEC might be a good start.

  6. steve says:

    It is outrageous that a major Labour Party reform has been initiated by a tiny, unaccountable clique on the grounds of a secret report, not even seen by the NEC.

    Unfortunately the absence transparency and even integrity in this matter raises doubts as to Miliband’s suitability for high office. The mantle of distrust that eventually smothered New Labour is now settling over Miliband’s leadership. It could well become a funeral shroud for Labour’s prospects in 2015.

  7. Ex-Labour says:

    But no, “move along, nothing to see” will just not cut it at this point.

    Er…..hadn’t someone better tell Dan McCurry (see his blog below) as this is all “history” now according to his view.

    Typical of the lefty BBC to have a lefty make the programme. Time it was privatised and the progressive liberals which form the core of BBC managment and staff are moved out.

    Labour know that association with the unions is not what the public want to see and is politically damaging. Someone somehwere knows the truth and its time Labour came clean and published the report for people to make their judgement. However I fear doing so would be political suicide and would probably be the death of Miliband as leader. The unions will plough on in their own undemocratic way.

  8. Danny says:

    You’re close to achieving the impossible Mr. Marchant. You’re almost making Julian Ruck look credible and talented.

  9. Major Plonquer says:

    “A big boy did it and ran away”. That’s the closest thing to an actual “policy” I’ve seen coming from the Labour Party in 3 years.

  10. Simon says:

    “In the midst of all of this, BBC Radio 4 made a rather intriguing recent programme called “Fight over Falkirk”. Intriguing because its “storm in a teacup” conclusion seemed to go directly against what insiders have been saying for weeks.”

    Shocker! The Labour Party wireless broadcasting arm say ‘Nothing to see here move along’

    The outright bias the BBC shows towards Labour is a national scandal. The telly tax needs to be scrapped. Imagine if the Tories had been caught up in this anti-democratic abortion, Cameron would be lambasted on every single channel the BBC has to offer

  11. John Reid says:

    MarjAustin, I don’t think there was an attempt to smear Seamis Miln e, there’s enough things in his blogs that do it for himself, and. As for Owen Jones the boys an idiot, no one takes his serious,but I do feel are that you’ve asked for the backlash in this article ,just let Ed,do what he pans and have opt in,that should sort out the situation,

  12. Milne is a moron who personifies the degradation of the once fine Liberal with a Capital L in the old sense of the world newspaper, the Manchester Guardian, into a temple of Leftie crassness that astonishes. Thrill to the Toynbee, who knows better than all of us what is best for us, marvel at their extraordinary platoon of Global Warming worshippers, but above all, glory at Mr. Milne, who demonstrates to all of us that a private education is not always what it’s cracked up to be.

    Huge fun. Huge belly laughs.

  13. @MarkAustin says:

    Islam is a political dogma as well as a religion.

    As any fule kno. Islamofascism – for fascism it is, however much the Left might hide their head in the sand over this matter – is a political movement. In the past 40 years, they have radicalised the Middle East and set Sunni against Shia in a river of endless blood, and now they are looking to us. That the UK and the US have anything to do with the Muslim Brotherhood shows just how effective the Islamists have been politically.

  14. @PoliticalTrainspotter: “These people were apparently signed up for membership by their family members, and that not just Karie Murphy but other candidates benefited.” – but that’s a bit disingenuous, isn’t it? You neglect to mention that, yes, there was *one* instance of Gregor Poynton paying for one group of, I think, 10 people, with a single cheque, for which he should be reprimanded, at least (and I think has been). He can at least reasonably claim ignorance of a rule which was broken once only, as far as I know.

    Compare that with a situation where 200 new members were signed up, an AWS survey designed to tilt the selection was paid for, backdating of memberships, people signed up without their knowledge, etc. etc. on a huge scale.

    No, I don’t think the two are remotely comparable and neither would any sensible person.

    @Hendrik: I take your point, but I’m afraid this has to be resolved before we can move on. That’s the way it is, and that’s the way it would be for any other party. You can’t put the genie, as it were, back in the bottle.

    @MarkAustin: but this is not a smear, I’m afraid, it’s a statement of fact. Practically no-one shares Mr Milne’s view on Bin Laden, except people on the far left. Further, if I were trying to decry an argument by a simple ad hominem, you might have a point. Thing is, here the objectivity of the witness is in question, and we have a right to point that out as part of the argument.

    @Matt: quite, weasel words indeed. Indeed the Labour Party rulebook is particularly tough on manipulation of selections, and explicitly prohibits any kind of manipulation which might possibly have an effect on a selection.

    @swatantra: I couldn’t agree more.

    @Ex-Labour: I can’t answer for Dan, just for myself, I’m afraid. I don’t agree with you on the BBC, by the way, at all. I find the BBC usually pretty objective, but occasionally let themselves down, and this is one occasion. But I believe it’s nothing to do with being lefty, merely an error of judgement.

    @Danny: if we all had the faintest idea who Julian Ruck was, it might help us understand your witty retort.

    @Simon: no, I don’t agree, really. I might concede a little on some of its Middle East coverage, however.

  15. Political Trainspotter says:

    @ Henrik “this member of the great British public has already come to the conclusion that if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks much like a duck, then it probably is a duck”

    Well, all I can say is ‘well done Progress faction’. Here we have somebody, claiming at least to be a member of the general public, who until they see any evidence to the contrary is now convinced that Unite were up to no good. On the basis of nothing but a media smear campaign from the 90s leftovers. Congrats, Marchant et al.

    @ Matt – I use ‘apparently’ because, like anyone else who hasn’t seen the report, I can only go on what I’ve heard. Some people allege Unite knew about fraudulent sign-ups. I’ve been told they didn’t. It now seems unfortunately unlikely we will ever know, which means we’re left with the mudslinging and innuendo of websites like this.

  16. postageincluded says:

    Here’s my alternative reading of the unread report (which I haven’t seen either): some not very bright lay officals or perhaps just some active members of Unite, having picked up the two messages that a) more Unite members need to be party members b) Karie Murphy is our lass, have been rather over-enthusiastic at recruitment. The way most unions run it would be quite possible for this to happen extensively without anyone even slightly higher up in the apparatus being aware of it. I would be astounded if any evidence, even tangential, implicated Mr McCluskey. Which is why he is happy for the report to be published.

    Cock-up, not conspiracy – but a cock-up that had been waiting to happen since the idiotic Blair-era “Union Join” scheme was introduced.

    Miliband’s daring response to this crisis – if his plan is succesfully implemented – would see far more Trade Unionists recruited to the party than “Union Join” had any hope of achieving, and would deter any “private individual” (other than those with very deep pockets) from trying to buy a selection. More than a few member would be needed to make a difference – certainly more than Greg Poynter’s 10.

    The distant rumbling you’re hearing isn’t the sound of unfinished business, Mr Merchant but the sound of your own dyspeptic chagrin.

  17. Henrik says:

    @Political Trainspotter: I’m not entirely sure why I should give Unite any benefit of the doubt. If the popular perception is wrong, then it’s up to the union to convince me – and others – that it is. If anyone’s smearing, here, I’m afraid it’s the union, the Labour Party seems to be bending over backwards not to hold you guys to account, at least not in public.

    @Rob: True enough, this sort of bloodletting does need to happen in any political party every few years. It’s unfortunate for the comrades that this will take up pretty much all the available bandwidth for another twelve months or so, which will leave only another year to sort out some sort of compelling vision for the General Election. Never mind, viewed in another way, it means you have *seven* years to develop some policies – and socialise them – before the next election Labour could conceivably win.

  18. Political Trainspotter says:

    @ Marchant

    I admire your brass neck in trying to bundle together things which are true and nobody denies (lots of members were signed up through Union Join, legitimately and openly) with things that are hotly disputed (whether people were signed up without their knowledge by the union, backdating of memberships).

    Of course, when you put it like that, the two cases don’t sound remarkably similar.

    Aspiring spin doctors would do well to take notes on the use of vague blether and insinuation to smear opponents.

  19. paul barker says:

    A lot of posters on this site dont seem to grasp that McCluskey is not a Social Democrat, hes a Communist. The differences between McCluskey & Crow are ones of tactics not aims.
    Personally, I suspect that the whole Falkirk business was a trap, designed to force Milliband into doing precisely what he has done but we will see in 7 months time.

  20. steve says:

    Paul Barker: “the whole Falkirk business was a trap”

    That would have required a conspiratorial degree of planning and need the complicity of some very close to Ed Miliband.

    For me the Falkirk business demonstrates Miliband’s inexperience. I imagine some have already prepared Miliband’s political obituary, which could be mistaken for Kinnock’s: “He did what was necessary to make Labour electable.” But this time there will probably be no subsequent election victory – Labour’s barrel is almost empty of credibility and if the Unions go there will be no opportunity for replenishment.

    As Rob says, the rumble of unfinished business continues and, in my view, it will get louder following the 2014 special conference. And it may coincide with the rumbling of Miliband’s tumbril, taking him to the 2015 ballot box guillotine.

  21. @Steve: although I don’t believe Falkirk was a trap, you raise an interesting point about “the complicity of some very close to Ed Miliband”. You have to ask yourself who close to Miliband would have had such crashingly poor judgement, not to mention disloyalty, both to leak the full report at all, and to leak it to Milne in particular. We might well guess at who that person might be.

  22. steve says:

    Rob.
    It is Miliband’s failure to release the report or call for an independent investigation that is the problem.

    If the report cites incontestable evidence as damning as has been suggested, Miliband has nothing to fear and can hold his head high. However if, as was claimed by the BBC: there was no major vote rigging scandal in Falkirk, then Miliband is skating on very thin ice. And his judgement will be seen as being far worse than poor, not least because he has surrounded himself with unreliable and mischief-making advisers.

    One might expect to encounter similar concealment and unaccountability in an obscure Trotskyist sect but in a modern political party? And in relation to an event used to motivate a major reform within a party hoping to win the trust of the electorate and form a government? No, no, no. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

  23. Ex-labour says:

    @rob merchant

    Rob

    The Beeb is full of left wing progressives as they have openly admitted. Even the guy who carried out their recent “impartiality” review admitted to being one !! It has also been acknowledged by ex DG Mark Thompson, Andrew Marr, Peter Sissons and numerous others. Just look at recent appointments to Newsnight and Question Time.

    Just this week I watched an edition of Newsnight and it was just one long thinly veiled attack on the government under the guise of “news” usually accompanied by the usual lefty talking heads.

    I expect the BBC to be impartial as its charter requires.

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