by Atul Hatwal
Another week and yet more twists in the Falkirk story.
Over the weekend, Unite’s response to the Labour party’s internal report on Falkirk was published by the Sunday Times (£). It sheds more light on Labour HQ’s involvement in the affair as well as revealing an important new allegation of malpractice.
To understand what happened, we need to wind the clock back to last December.
Unite had sent large batches of new Falkirk membership applications to Labour head office for approval. The bulk of these were Unite members joining the party under the terms of the now defunct “union join” scheme. This allowed Unite, or any union, to pay the first year’s membership subscription for any of their members who wanted to join Labour, as long as the application included the new recruits’ direct debit details to cover future years’ subscriptions.
Rapid processing of these applications was required if these new members were to be eligible to participate in the selection. According to party rules, new members can only take part in picking the prospective parliamentary candidate if they have “six months continuous membership of the Labour party (any constituency) at the freeze date.”
The freeze date is the point at which the selection process is declared open. Given the Falkirk selection was expected to take place in May or June, timing was tight for Unite’s surge of new recruits from November and December 2012 to have built up “six months continuous membership”.
There was almost no margin for delay.
But delay is exactly what happened. Suspicious party officials flagged several applications, worrying that party processes were being manipulated and because direct debit details were frequently missing.
This presented two challenges for Unite and Labour.
First, adding the missing direct debits would have been very time consuming, significantly delaying registration of the new members.
Second, even if these memberships could be somehow quickly readied to be put on the system, late January would have been too late to qualify if the contest was held in the first half of the year.
Labour HQ’s role in fixing these problems reveals the depth of the party’s involvement in backing Unite’s strategy in Falkirk.
Last week we discovered how the first issue was addressed. Leaked Unite e-mails suggested general secretary of the Labour party, Iain McNicol, gave Unite a year to provide the direct debit information. Sunday’s leaked Unite report confirmed this agreement and was unequivocal in refuting concerns raised in Labour’s internal report over the missing direct debit details:
“Wrong – Iain McNicol agreed Unite had 12 months to complete.”
This Sunday we found out how the second problem was solved.
Unite’s leaked report refers to a claim made in the Labour party’s investigation that the start-dates for Unite’s recruits in Falkirk were back-dated on the party’s membership system.
“If there was evidence that the join date of members was set to the first receipt of forms even though those forms were incorrectly completed, this is not the fault of Unite or the recruiting individuals.”
Based on this new information in Unite’s report, It would seem Labour party officials broke party membership rules by logging some members’ start-date as when their application was received.
The Labour party’s membership registration rules are very clear on when membership rights commence. They do not begin on the application date but only after head office has acknowledged that it has received the application with the correct membership subscription and there have been no objections. This is when an applicant becomes a full member of the party and they are eligible to vote in a parliamentary selection.
“vii Provisional membership rights commence from the date of production of the acknowledgement following the receipt of the application and the appropriate membership subscription. A provisional member shall only have the right to attend branch meetings in a non-voting capacity.
viii The CLP concerned shall be informed by the General Secretary of the application for membership. Any objection to any application for membership may be made by the CLP to the General Secretary within eight weeks of this notification. Such objection may only be made by the General Meeting or Executive Committee of the CLP concerned, though such objection may initially be made on a provisional basis by a party officer, pending further enquiries. Where there is a provisional objection within eight weeks of notification, a further four weeks may be allowed for an objection to be made, and in such circumstances the applicant will be written to by the national party informing them of the extension to the period of objection.
ix. Subject to sub paragraph (viii) above, if no objection is received by the General Secretary within eight weeks of the notification in (viii) above, and the membership fee has been received by the General Secretary, the applicant shall be deemed to be a full party member.” Section 1B, Appendix 2 NEC procedural guidelines on membership recruitment and retention, Labour party rule book 2013
Given these rules, it is difficult to see how Labour HQ could justify back-dating the memberships of those applicants’ whose forms had been held up in December. Any decision to do so could not have been the act of a junior official and would almost certainly needed the authority of the general secretary and the agreement of the leader’s office.
The combination of Iain McNicol seeming to change the rules on direct debits and, membership forms potentially being back-dated is toxic for Labour’s position on Falkirk.
Consider the statement issued by the party in July when it suspended the “union join” scheme,
“In the light of the activities of Unite in Falkirk we will end the ‘union join’ scheme.
Union join was established before Ed Miliband became Leader of the Labour Party with the aim of legitimately encouraging ordinary members of trade unions to become members of the Labour Party.
However, due to the results of Unite in Falkirk it has become open to abuse but also open to attacks from our opponents that damage Labour. “
In this statement, Labour is blaming Unite for activities that were not only agreed at the most senior levels, but actively supported with party rules appearing to have been bent or just plain ignored.
Even more shocking are the inherent contradictions that are revealed within the party’s own positioning.
Labour launched an inquiry into what happened in Falkirk that found problems with large numbers of Unite’s membership applications not having direct debit details. If Unite’s protestations are true, then we are in the incredible position where the general secretary, Iain McNicol somehow forgot to mention to his own staff, conducting the inquiry, that he had approved Unite’s recruitment practice.
On back-dating new memberships, once again Labour’s inquiry seems to have found evidence of malpractice. But as Unite contend, it could not have been their officials who entered the dates on the membership system. Once again, these decisions could only have been made at Labour HQ but no-one seems to have bothered to tell Labour HQ’s own investigating team what actually happened.
These revelations only serve to increase pressure on Ed Miliband to re-open the Falkirk inquiry. This time though, rather than focus exclusively on actions in Falkirk, Brewers Green should be part of the remit.
Did Iain McNicol authorise a change in the terms of the “union join” recruitment scheme to give Unite a year to collect direct debits? If so, why didn’t he tell the party’s own inquiry?
Were any memberships back-dated to start at the point they were received at head office? If so, who authorised this?
Until these questions like these are definitively answered, Labour’s problems in Falkirk will continue to grow.
Atul Hatwal is editor of Labour Uncut