by Rob Marchant
On Saturday, after some days of deliberation, Jim Murphy announced his candidacy for the Scottish leadership.
Within hours, Unite had put out a statement:
“Unite’s representative members will soon decide who to nominate on behalf of our union. On the basis of this speech, it is extremely difficult for them to find much to find hope that Jim Murphy is offering the genuine, positive change in Scottish Labour they seek.”
Notice first how Unite members are being given a completely free choice of candidate, and that its leadership is not trying to influence them at all. In fact, this effect of denying a level playing-field to leadership candidates in the union vote – that is, trying to distort the One Member, One Vote (OMOV) process – was one of the main reasons for the Collins reforms.
By Monday they had announced the results of a poll claiming that “working people” (i.e. Unite members: the union sees no irony in considering the two identical) wanted an MSP in the role and not an MP. Oh, wait a minute, which of the declared candidates is not an MSP…?
Why go to such lengths to trash the front-running candidate?
Because, apart from being probably the Shadow Cabinet’s most outspoken centrist, Murphy is widely known as being “his own man”, as Damian McBride describes him. There is little that would put Unite’s nose out of joint more than someone who didn’t play Scottish Labour according to the usual rules.
Scottish Labour, lest we forget, was the political Wild West land through the New Labour years, which survived virtually untouched under the protective gaze of Gordon Brown.
However, McBride’s sympathetic account of the trials of managing the Scottish party also gives away probably the greatest weakness of the Brown administration: its preference for managing genteel decline, rather than attack underlying problems at their root. Its preference for comfortable fiefdoms, where you did as you were told, over a healthy party full of competing ideas; a thousand flowers blooming. Scottish Labour was Brownism writ large.
And Unite has been a big part of that story. For a start, there is no better example of what is wrong with Scottish Labour than the Falkirk debacle. Unite’s approach was breath-taking; the denials unconvincing; the big questions still unanswered.
The one-horse town dominated by the Grangemouth oil refinery and, by extension, the local union muscle; who were, as it happens, in the middle of a major (and botched) dispute, where loyalty was expected.
The local union rep who held three crucial roles simultaneously: convener at the refinery, Chair of Unite in Scotland, and, most conveniently, chair of the local CLP organising the Falkirk selection. The Westminster parliamentary office, where Unite’s favoured candidate and personal friend of Len McCluskey worked, and which, according to Labour’s official report, bizarrely became a centre for queries about Scottish membership forms.
Who could possibly look at Falkirk and think this was not a perfect example of politics gone wrong?
Not always the most decisive of leaders, even Miliband was forced to act decisively in the face of what he perceived, probably rightly, to be an existential threat to him and his party. And, from what we know about his character, it seems unthinkable that Murphy would not look to tackle this culture of stitch-ups and reinvigorate the ailing Scottish party.
Conversely, if Scottish Labour is ever to turn around its comprehensive defeat by the SNP, the last thing it needs is yet another leader like Johann Lamont, blaming the national party for all its ills and whining, in a Salmondian tone, how it is treated as a “branch office”.*
In fact, it is not at all far-fetched to conclude that the very future of the Union may well depend on Labour finding a heavyweight leader, prepared to take on the Scottish Labour “establishment” and win. It is not just Scottish Labour that needs Murphy; the national party and, in truth, the majority of British people who support the Union need him there. The Tories and the Lib Dems self-evidently cannot beat the SNP. If that were not enough, polls suggest that Labour is staring a Scottish wipeout in the face, which would destroy its chances of winning the Westminster general election as well.
So, despite the fact that he may be Labour’s last hope for both Union and general election, we can see why Unite is doing everything it can to scupper Murphy’s campaign.
It is not as if McCluskey has shown unswerving loyalty to Labour in recent months anyway; he has already threatened disaffiliation if Labour loses. And in Scotland, during the referendum campaign, he kept Unite neutral and even flirted with Alex Salmond, quite probably because he perceives that Scottish Labour may be slowly slipping out of his grasp and sees an opportunity for an alternative.
All in all, McCluskey is not stupid: he knows that, if Murphy wins, the game’s up for him in Scotland.
Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour Party manager who blogs at The Centre Left
*The irony is that this is not remotely true: in a party perennially strapped for resources, Scotland has always had more staff than any other part of Britain; its own press office; its own internal structure. Scottish Labour has always been coddled, and more than ever under New Labour.