by Rob Marchant
“Oh, what a tangled web we weave
When first we practise to deceive.”
– Sir Walter Scott, Marmion
Ah, Falkirk. We drew a line under it, didn’t we? Only we didn’t.
A couple of months ago Uncut noted that the Falkirk debacle was unfinished business. But even we didn’t expect there to be quite such a spectacular unravelling, as happened last weekend.
For the uninitiated, the story went like this: the Falkirk West selection process was suspended amidst accusations that Unite were fixing the selection process for Karie Murphy, Tom Watson’s office manager and friend of Len McCluskey. Unite cried “foul” and hinted that Labour had exaggerated on purpose for their own ends; local witnesses suddenly, fortuitously, withdrew testimonies; and by party conference an uneasy truce was in place between Labour and Unite, both saying “move along, nothing to see”.
A sprinkling of chutzpah was even brought into play: McCluskey’s old friend Tom Watson, who ended up resigning over the fallout, said Miliband should apologise. Further, BBC Radio 4 even made an extraordinarily wrong-headed documentary about how this had all been a storm in a tea-cup, in which the chief defence witness was none other than far-left journalist Seumas Milne. Unite and the Labour Party, it seemed, had pulled it off.
The trouble was that no-one really believed them. Conference was full of stories about what had actually happened. The word was, in fact, that the press stories about membership abuses had all been true, and worse. That the complainants had been influenced and cajoled into withdrawing.
But the line held. It was all going well…until Grangemouth.
The chemical plant, whose employees’ pay packets help fuel the local economy in Falkirk, had been brought to the point of closure after a summer of discontent.
The trouble started because its owner, Ineos, had tired of Unite’s local shop steward, suspending Stevie Deans – also chair of the union in Scotland – who they say misused company resources.
Unite refused to take this lying down, and the resulting dispute, described by many as a return to the 1970s union playbook, threatened a strike.
All the while in parallel, serious discussions were ongoing about the financial viability of the plant. Management were moving towards imposing tough new conditions, but the threat of strike action was raised by the union because of the treatment of one of the Unite’s own rather than the terms and conditions – a threat that made the already rocky business case for continued operations in Grangemouth that bit more parlous.
Amazing, really, how one little Scottish town can have had so many things happening to it in a single year, isn’t it?
Except it isn’t. Because Stevie Deans – who finally resigned on Monday – was not just the Grangemouth shop steward and a key figure in Unite’s national hierarchy. As it happens, he was also chair of Falkirk Labour Party: as a result of the selection debacle, suspended, then reinstated, along with Murphy.
Now, there must be an explanation for all of this (there always is).
We can take the rather complicated explanation, that the Labour Party first conspired to create a situation out of Falkirk much bigger than it actually was, because belligerent Ed Miliband was out looking for a fight with the unions (don’t laugh, this is what some people are spinning).
And then, that in the same tiny area of Scotland, there was simultaneously a conspiracy by someone else (a multinational presumably not in league with the Labour party, if Miliband’s recent statements on big business are anything to go by): to victimise one of the people implicated in the Falkirk controversy, Stephen Deans.
Or we could take the alternative hypothesis: that Britain’s biggest union was completely out of control in Scotland, with the connivance of its general secretary.
That Len McCluskey’s friend was being positioned for a seat, and the people responsible for arranging local support got caught crossing the line. A row ensued. A deal was done. But the deal reckoned without the fact that one of the main fixers in Falkirk West, Deans, would manage to irritate his Grangemouth employers so much, and that Unite might be so locked into such a recklessly aggressive mentality that it might be prepared to risk hundreds of jobs in saving him. It could not afford to let Stevie Deans be tainted by a second controversy, because of what people might then infer about his role in the first controversy: the Falkirk selection.
We might also conjecture that Grangemouth might not be a hotbed of evil union-bashers but a company with bosses who, not very surprisingly, look after the interests of their company and their shareholders.
But then the bombshell: according to last weekend’s Sunday Times (£) over 1,000 emails were found on Stephen Deans’ work computer, which it claims showed bullying, intimidation, campaigns to discredit Labour Party figures, and so on had all taken place. Not to mention making Ineos’ charge of “misuse of company resources” rather difficult now to fight off.
It’s quite hard to fabricate 1,000 emails. Which leaves us with the awkward thought that a union’s leadership might just have been prepared to put at risk hundreds of jobs, largely to cover their own sorry backsides.
Even were this not the case, if Len McCluskey knew about the contents of the emails, it is difficult to see how he can credibly continue as general secretary: yesterday he issued a rather desperate Guardian piece, in which he rather lamely claims “a clean bill of health” and barely mentions the devastating Sunday Times emails.
The principle of Occam’s razor states that if there are two explanations, a simple one and a complicated one, the simple one is usually the correct one.
Before we reach for contorted explanations to justify why two unconnected organisations (Ineos and the Labour Party) end up fighting with the same trade union in the same tiny piece of land in a far-flung corner of the British Isles, we might well look to apply that principle here. And we leave you, dear reader, to decide which of the two explanations fits best.
At some point, Ed Miliband will have to make the decision of whether he will continue to protect this disastrous union-in-a-tailspin that is Unite, or whether he will stand back and let natural justice take its course.
Worse, Labour is damaged every day that this story continues on, because we were complicit in the deal which we must suppose was struck. We helped Unite wriggle out. We even had Labour MPs – Labour MPs, as Neil Kinnock might have had it – failing to consider what was best for the workers of Grangemouth, merely what was best for their friends in Unite.
Oh, what a tangled web has been woven; but it’s time to put down the shuttle. Unite has slid into an existential crisis; Labour need not be dragged down with it.
The inquiry must be reopened and, this time, no deals. Our proud party is better than this sorry affair.
Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour party manager who blogs at The Centre Left