by Atul Hatwal
Tomorrow is prime ministers’ questions. At the despatch box, when David Cameron faces Ed Miliband, political reality will collide with the la-la land Labour is living in on Falkirk.
As in July, David Cameron will use the fiasco to hammer Ed Miliband.
Labour MPs are dreading it. The Tory backbench barrackers can barely wait. Journalists are gleefully expecting great copy.
Already today, George Osborne crow-barred Falkirk into Treasury questions, such is the Tories’ eagerness to use it as a means of attacking Labour.
Come what may, the post-PMQs story tomorrow won’t be about energy or the living wage, but Ed Miliband’s leadership and the power of Unite over the Labour party.
Over the past few days the shrieks of “nothing to see here” from Labour’s high command have become ever louder and more desperate. We are long past the stage where rationality seems to drive the party’s actions.
It is politically unsustainable for the party to continue insisting all is well when figures as senior as Alistair Darling are calling for the inquiry to be re-opened and news reports related to Labour are increasingly dominated by this one issue.
And on the evidence that has emerged from the cache of over 1000 Ineos mails that were passed to the Sunday Times, the party appears to be wilfully averting its gaze. Ed Miliband was wrong today when he said that no new information had come to light on Falkirk.
Quite apart from whether key witnesses have or have not withdrawn their original complaints, if the Sunday Times e-mails are true there are several other potential rule breaches now in the public domain that merit further examination by the party.
For example, the Sunday Times reports,
“Separately, an email from Karie Murphy, the hard-left candidate Unite was trying to parachute into Falkirk, reveals a secret system that gave Labour members colour-coded star ratings based on their perceived loyalty to Unite.
It gave red stars to those considered the union’s opponents, yellow stars to female members who might back it and double green stars to those the union had specifically ‘recruited for the selection’.”
If the last phrase, “recruited for the selection” is accurate, then it seems Labour party procedures have been broken. The party rule-book is quite clear that members cannot just be recruited for selections. In Appendix 2 NEC procedural guidelines on membership recruitment and retention, the rule-book states,
“The health and democracy of the party depends on the efforts and genuine participation of individuals who support the aims of the party, wish to join the party and get involved with our activities. The recruitment of large numbers of ‘paper members’, who have no wish to participate except at the behest of others in an attempt to manipulate party processes, undermines our internal democracy and is unacceptable to the party as a whole.”
If the party was serious about its own rules then this one potential breach alone would have been cause at least for some further investigation.
But clearly the party is not interested, regardless of the damage or the new evidence that has emerged.
The question is why? Why would the Labour leadership indulge in such an apparent act political of self-harm by pretending nothing has changed on Falkirk?
The answer is that there is a far greater fear of the consequences for Ed Miliband if the inquiry is re-opened and a civil war with Unite ensues.
Beyond the potential financial cost to the party of withheld union donations, the leader’s office is scared about what will happen at the special conference next year on Ed Miliband’s proposals to reform the union link.
The spring special conference will be what is known within the party as a “recall conference.” This means the delegates from the last Labour party conference in Brighton will be recalled to discuss and then vote upon the proposals.
In that decision, the unions will have 50% of the votes with 50% in the hands of CLP delegates. If the Falkirk inquiry is re-opened, Unite – who are currently poised to vote for the reforms – are likely to swing into the opposition camp.
Given the statements of the major unions’ general secretaries, a switch in allegiance by Unite would mean that all of the big unions would vote against the reforms. The Labour leadership might persuade some of the more centrist, smaller unions to endorse their approach but, they would still be faced by a solid block of 40%+ votes opposing reform before the special conference has even convened.
For Ed Miliband to win, he would need an absolutely overwhelming majority of the CLP vote in the order of 90%+. However, while Tony Blair won the backing of 90% of CLP delegates at the Clause IV special conference in 1995, Ed Miliband is extremely unlikely to achieve anything like that result.
We know this because we’ve already seen how this group of CLP delegates will vote at the recent Labour party conference.
Within the arcane world of Labour party internal politics, each year, at annual conference there is a vote on who is selected to sit on something called the Conference Arrangements Committee (CAC). This committee decides how conference is run and the vote is always highly factionalised with the choice being between leadership candidates and slate backed by the hard left.
The result gives a good indication of the political leanings of CLP delegates.
This year, delegates backed the leadership candidates – the MPs, Heidi Alexander and Tom Blenkinsopp – by 57% to 43% over the left ticket of Pete Willsman and Katy Clark MP.
It means that although the majority of CLP delegates are likely to back Ed Miliband’s reforms, almost half are in the left camp and likely oppose the Labour leadership’s plans.
Without Unite or one of the other big unions backing the reform proposals, a crushing defeat at the special conference beckons for Ed Miliband.
This would ignite a media meltdown. It’s difficult to imagine a situation where the weakness of the leader was more viscerally demonstrated than to be defeated in such a manner. The contrast with Tony Blair and the 1995 special conference would be brutal.
This is the nightmare scenario which is scaring the leader’s office and is why they are petrified of re-opening the Falkirk inquiry.
The tragedy is, it didn’t have to be this way.
When drawing up plans for the special conference, the leadership could have called for new nominations for CLP delegates, working with constituency parties to make the pro-reform case and have more supportive CLP delegates selected.
Or they could have conducted a one member one vote consultation across the whole of the Labour party and called on the unions to do something similar, replicating parts of the process for the the election of Labour’s leader, with the results being announced at the special conference.
Either or both of these options would have tipped the odds decisively towards a rousing victory for Ed Miliband.
Instead, his advisers opted for a recall conference and as a result the political management of his union reform proposals has been badly bungled.
Ed Miliband effectively finds himself in a position where Len McCluskey and Unite hold a veto over his union link reform proposals.
Slow handclap for the leader’s office.
Atul Hatwal is editor of Labour Uncut