The web we have woven in Falkirk

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


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18 Responses to “The web we have woven in Falkirk”

  1. swatantra says:

    I was up in Edinburgh for the Co-operative Party Conference and got the shock of my life when I saw a double decker with the destination FALKIRK written it. That brought it all back to me: unfinished business indeed, leaving Len to answer a lot of questions. Surely the TUC must have a ‘Committee’ to look into things like this.

  2. paul barker says:

    The problem with your suggestion is that it would wreck a much bigger deal between Milliband & Unite over the proposed Reforms. Unite can scupper the Reforms & leave Milliband dead in the water.
    Of course Milliband could threaten Unite with Disaffiliation but wouldnt that rip Labour apart ?

  3. steve says:

    “[McCluskey] barely mentions the devastating Sunday Times emails.”

    Perhaps because there’s a much more important concern. A tax-avoiding multi-national*, saddled with debt consequent to aggressive acquisitions**, has held the workforce and the country to ransom – by threatening to shut down the vitally important Grangemouth facility unless they got what they wanted: government loan guarantees and diminished income and rights for the workers.

    The employees will lose thousands of pounds in shift allowances, have their pensions diminished, go without a wage rise for four years and lose the right to strike.

    But for Rob the sordid sectional interests of a few feverishly ambitious Westminster bubble inhabitants is the priority.

    * http://www.primeeconomics.org/?p=2252

    ** http://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/specials/switzerland_magnet/Swiss_HQ_oversees_Ineos_future_growth.html?cid=30044450

  4. @swatantra: If only the TUC would have a committee on such things that someone would listen to! The problem is that consolidation means that the power is nowadays all in the hands of the big three union leaders.

    @paulbarker: A good point, but not necessarily. If McCluskey resigns, I suspect his successor would have little option but to accept the proposals in order to draw a clear line under the affair. Point is that all this puts more pressure on union leaders to accept “cleanup” proposals: if they don’t, they will look increasingly like a bunch of out-of-touch leaders who can’t give up their addiction to fixing.

  5. @Steve: Except, Steve, that the plant shutdown that Unite threatened was not about the pay and conditions. It was about Stevie Deans.

  6. Alastair McKay says:

    I think you should avoid calling Falkirk a “far flung corner of the British isles”. It’s in the Scottish Central Belt. They have trains and roads and electricity and everything.

  7. John reid says:

    Steve it’s not for us us as labour members to judge ,other people’s tax situations, we should try to see what people are doing,that they shouldn’t be in our own party though,

  8. Mike says:

    Yawn. People in the Westminster village grossly overestimate how much people care about this story – all most people hear when it comes on the news is “political party is corrupt; tell us something we didn’t know”. Nor are trade unions specifically the kind of 1980s bogeymen Rob Marchant imagines them to be; in fact, polls show the public trust them more (or, more accurately, mistrust them slightly less) than the average politician.

    If EdM has any sense, he’ll push these trade union “reforms” deep into the long grass (since at very best, the public won’t care in the slightest about them, and at worst, it will provoke a damaging row and give the public an impression that we’re more concerned with talking about boring internal party matters rather than the things people care about).

  9. Robert says:

    Unite have clearly made idiots of themselves and Ineos are an unpleasant multi-national. Fortunately, however, reason prevailed in the end and the plant was not closed.

    So what has this got to do with the Labour Party? The selection process was a bit dodgy which was it was suspended. Presumably it will now go head properly and there is no need whatsoever for a massive union-Labour split. Quite frankly, most people do not get their knickers in a twist about a bit of union fixing that went a bit too far!

  10. @JohnReid: Indeed, it was partly because Unite insisted on getting so political and trying to smear Ineos about their tax affairs, rather than arguing their case on the quite reasonable grounds of pay and conditions, that has led to the current mess. They wouldn’t strike over pay and conditions but they did over Stevie Deans. What does that tell you about their priorities?

    @Mike: Oh, yes, let’s just leave things as they are. After all, they’re not things that are interesting to the public. Until they bring everything crashing down, that is.

  11. uglyfatbloke says:

    I’m sorry to say Rob’s quite right. There is a wider issue about careerism and an institutionalised ‘old mates’ culture within the Labour party in Scotland stretching back for decades. Trying to describe it to friends down south produces a mixture of shock and disbelief, but it’s just part of life in the central belt. Can you imagine for a moment that any Labour councillor – let alone a council administration – in England or Wales would have a cosy relationship with something like the orange order? Does anyone think that Labour would team up with the tories to pursue a stupid, impractical and hugely expensive project just to frustrate a glib-dumb administration? And if they did, does anyone think the press would n’t be on their case?
    It’s not just the Westminster village that is concerned about this. A lot of people are worried that a there were people willing to risk thousands of jobs and damage the economy to protect themselves and their buddies.

  12. steve says:

    Rob: “… the plant shutdown that Unite threatened… ”

    You miss the point.

    Over 80% of the workforce voted to go on strike and then opted to go back to work, on less favourable terms, to save their jobs and a facility said to be worth £1-billion-a-year to the Scottish economy. And the government had no option other than to offer cash guarantees because of the importance of the facility.

    All of this was delivered to one unelected individual who stormed off to Switzerland after a row with a Labour government over a £350million VAT deferment and to avoid corporation tax; and who insisted on closing the plant even after UNITE cancelled the proposed industrial action.

    Governments and members of trade unions have been shown to be powerless in the face of corporate intransigence. But there’s a safe Labour seat up for grabs so let’s not concern ourselves with the important stuff, eh Rob?

  13. Rallan says:

    “If EdM has any sense, he’ll push these trade union “reforms” deep into the long grass”

    Would you also recommend treating gangrene with bed rest and air freshener?

  14. BenM says:

    Re: Falkirk.

    *looks around*

    Nope.

    As hard as Labour Uncut tries, no one cares.

    The economy is bombed out, employment growth is based on poorly paid and part time work, energy prices dominate the agenda because despite whjat this blog thinks this issue is important to people.

    There are real problems out there. A dodgy selection process in less than 0.2% of constutuencies Labour will be putting up candidates is not one of them.

  15. Andy Prendergast says:

    “the power is nowadays all in the hands of the big three union leaders” Only a man who clearly has absolutely no idea as to how a trade union works could write such drivel. I suggest you actually study the organsiatons that still command the support of seven million people as opposed to simply parroting sections from the Daily mail book of industrial relations.

  16. southern voter says:

    Trade unions trying to fix selections is not new.All factions in the labour party try to fix selections for their favoured sons and daughters.Those who are less skilled in organising their vote always cry foul.This is nothing new and will always take place.
    I remember the Blair leadership parachuting their candidates in safe seats so you
    cannot blame the unions when they try to fight back.

  17. @Rallan: That really is very good. I might have to quote you.

    @AndyPrendergast: Ah, very good, the old “all unions are democratic bodies” chestnut. The woeful lack of democracy in the majority of unions is dealt with very effectively in Jonathan Roberts’ piece today.

  18. @uglyfatbloke: Thanks. In fact, although the problem is particularly bad in parts of Scotland, I think you’ll find that there are comparable setups in various parts of England as well where unions and party get a bit too close, especially at selection time.

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