Unite has learned nothing from the Falkirk debacle

by Rob Marchant

Last week, we started to see just how much some quarters of the Labour Party do not want Jim Murphy to become their leader in Scotland. It was not so much the carefully-crafted hatchet job from Tom Watson, which followed that of old flat-mate Len McCluskey, leader of the Unite union, from a few weeks earlier.

No, it was the landing on Scottish Unite members’ doormats of ballot packs from their union.

Of course, under the One Member, One Vote system which has been in place for two decades, union leaders no longer allocate millions of their members’ votes; the members decide freely for themselves, under a ballot organised by the union.

Or, at least, that’s the theory.

The reality is that they decide a little less freely than that: some union leaders seem to think freedom, like a number of political leaders before them, is a commodity so valuable that it needs to be rationed.

And so, Scotland’s Sunday Herald reported, the GMB continued to do what it did in the 2010 leadership election for the national party: it put in only the leaflet of its favoured candidate, Neil Findlay, into the voting pack.

But that was nothing compared what Unite got up to: it actually placed a “mock” ballot paper inside the pack alongside the real one, with an X against the box of its favoured candidate. All you had to do was to copy this X onto the real ballot paper in the same place and, hey presto. A more transparent attempt to “help” the voter to vote would be hard to imagine.

It is perfectly legitimate for the leadership to express a preference. What is not acceptable, as standard practice in postal ballots clearly shows, is to express it in the ballot pack.

Now, imagine if you received a postal ballot paper for next year’s general election and you had only seen the literature of one candidate come through your door in an official Freepost pack. You’d feel the others had been treated unfairly, wouldn’t you?

And, let us be clear: if a parliamentary election were to be held with a “mock” ballot paper finding its way into the ballot pack, as Unite managed to do, there would rightly be a national outcry. Heads would roll. It would inevitably be considered such a serious procedural breach that the election would have to be re-run, and such an event has surely never happened in any state election within living memory.

It would be difficult to envisage, say, the Electoral Reform Society endorsing a system like Unite’s. Or any similar practices ever being adopted by the Electoral Commission. It is more reminiscent of the kind of sharp practice that has allegedly occurred in elections in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets.

But because this is an internal election, there is no statutory requirement for fairness. Ah, internal elections aren’t supposed to be that democratic, eh? But just because something is legal does not make it ethical or right.

Will it matter in the end? One suspects not, for two reasons:

One, that many Unite members are likely to be irritated by this incompetently crude attempt to try and sway their views. It is an insult to their intelligence and will most likely turn out to be counter-productive.

Two, that Murphy is likely sufficiently far ahead in the polling anyway that even if it were to have a negative effect on his vote, it would probably not affect the final result. But it just might.

And what is most astonishing is this. The controversy over the Falkirk parliamentary selection – something Unite Scotland was at the centre of – having been the trigger for a complete overhaul of the party’s internal democracy, culminated in a special conference vote last March to change them.

And yet – and yet – Unite’s leadership is still sufficiently lacking in self-awareness to try and influence the result of an election, through a practice which would clearly not be endorsed by any electoral body.

And if you disagree with that assertion, Mr McCluskey, I invite you to ask the Electoral Reform Society, or any other neutral body, to review this aspect of your voting system.

In other words it has proved Miliband’s argument, of the essentiality of pressing ahead with party reform, and then some. If there is anyone left in the party who seriously questions whether he overreacted, well, here’s your answer. Wake up.

Unite’s leadership has shown without a shadow of a doubt that it will continue to try and influence the votes of its members until and unless the organisation of that ballot is taken away from it and run neutrally from party HQ.

Happily, assuming the reforms go through as planned, it soon will be.

Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour Party manager who blogs at The Centre Left

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21 Responses to “Unite has learned nothing from the Falkirk debacle”

  1. Jim Monaghan says:

    This surely isnt serious, when Murphy is being sent to news programmes as Labours represntative on every issue, when the whole Better Together operation goes straight to work for Murphy after a nice pay-off from their tory funders, when the union and CLP nominations that heavily favour Findlay are excluded from the partys info pack showing only the MP/MSPs nominations (the only section that favours Murphy) are you seriously saying this isnt a fair campaign? This smacks of getting your excuses in early. Its pretty obvious why most members and affiliates dont want Murphy to win. He is probably Scotlands most unpopular politician at the moment, he doesnt have a seat at Holyrood and isnt guaranteed to get one, and he represents the Blair years, something we all want to get over so we can rebuild whats left of the party up here. Anyway, comparing the two campigns, the unions, Tom watson and most others would obviously support Findlay over Murphy, its a better prgramme of policies, clearly.

  2. swatantra says:

    Thats why they’re known as dinosaurs, because they can’t adapt to changing times, and an unseen event could lead to their extinction.
    All elections should be fairly contested; Findley should have his say but so should Murray. And after Murray has won, the two sides should come together, and unite, instead of continuing the feud that started in 1994, to the detrement of the Party.

  3. eddie hookway says:

    What’s wrong with unions advising which leader will be best for their members some former blairites are banging the drum for their candidate he’s even been interviewed on BBC as the leading candidate

  4. Landless Peasant says:

    I’ve never forgiven Murphy for refusing to support the Campaign for Free Education back in the 90’s, and describing people I know as “a bunch of Trots with their own agenda”. Fucking traitor.

  5. steve says:

    “assuming the reforms go through”


    And then the unions will be free to set up a political party prepared to represent the interests of trades union members.

    And the remainder of the Labour/Progress Party can wander off into LibDem la la land.

    Happy days.

  6. Tafia says:

    Is it Unite that’s learnt nothing from the Falkirk debacle? Or is it Labour (in particular Westminster Labour)? Unite will do what Unite does and what everyone knew they would do – for Labour to suddenly think otherwise shows a paucity of intelligence that begs the question as to how they manage to talk and walk at the same time.

    The Scottish Labour Party rank & file do not want Murphy and the scottish unions do not want Murphy – about the only people that want Murphy are the SNP, so why is he there? Which clown collective sent him, why and to achieve what?

    And Unite pay a lot of money and whoever pays the piper calls the tune. Of course, Labour is welcome to decline union money and exist on private donations and membership fees.

  7. John Reid says:

    Jim Monaghan, the reason Murphy was on the TV a lot during the refendum, was dos he was the leading voice in the no campaign, ye it has given him an advantage,if what you say about info packs for Findlay not being sent to PLPs that’s wrong, but I can’t see how you can say you know, with a certainty, that the Scottish Lsbour party doesn’t want a return to the Blair years

    Taffs, labour deliberately refused RMT Union money after they also backed other parties in 2005′ my Union PCS odnt affiliated, Lsbour doesn’t seem to want us back,

  8. Fred says:


    “And Unite pay a lot of money and whoever pays the piper calls the tune. Of course, Labour is welcome to decline union money and exist on private donations and membership fees.”

    So what your saying is that if labour win in 2015, Unite will run the country??

  9. Nice to see a Marchant post where he isn’t blaming Islam or anti-war people. Still as Labour’s core vote drifts away, Rob and his friends decide what’s needed is a bit of union bashing instead. Still as Rob has said in the past, we are mostly middle class now and as John McTernan says, who needs the working class core vote anyway*.

    *McTernan seemed to have a change of heart during the panic period prior to the referendum when he called for union help so maybe he has changed his mind now.

  10. Tafia says:

    John I know about the RMT, PCS, and FBU even. But Labour still asks the unions for money yet seems to think it doesn’t have to do what they want. At my last place of work (where I was the union rep) every single member – over 100 of my union and over a hundred of another, all opted out of the political fund because they were totally pissed off with Labour thinking it was somehow entitled to the money for doing literally nothing.

    Labour needs to have a serious think – they are either the poltical wing of the trades union movement, in which case they get the money – or they no longer think they are in which case they should do without the money.

    Luckily the days of opting in and out of politcal fees for trades unions is coming to an end and will ultimately be an automatic opt out unless you physically opt in, and the unions having to offer the ‘opter’ the full range of registered political parties in which to opt in. That I think will ultimately force the issue and the unions – then having to give their members choices such as the SWP, RCPGB, UKIP, BNP etc etc will probably just cease doing it altogether. At the same time we’ll probably get the uusual pathetic squawk from(in the main) Labour that they should receive public funding, but the British public will not accept that and quite rightly so. Political parties should be forced to survive on their mebership fees – we live in a consumer society and if there is a demand for that particular party then it will survive. If there is no demand for it then it will rightly perish.

    And what’s this about the unions now deciding to support austerity? ( http://www.leftfutures.org/2014/07/trade-unions-vote-against-ending-austerity-in-2015/ )

    Strange how that appears at the same time as Balls says on TV two days ago that all Labour’s spending plans post 2015 will not require any extra borrowing. Without increasing borrowing the only path is austerity unless you tax the hell out of everyone (taxing just the rich won’t raise anywhere near enough to end austerity) so it now appears that Labour and the unions support it.

  11. Ex Labour says:

    @Landless Peasant

    In fairness to Murphy you do sound like a Trot. So he’s not wrong.

  12. BenM says:

    Falkirk is to Labour Uncut what Benghazi is for US Republicans.

  13. Robert says:

    Time to let labour go it alone.

  14. Rob Marchant says:

    @JimMonaghan: Whataboutery. Rather than acknowledging what Unite is doing, your argument is “look at them, they’re just as bad”. Your point about the party’s packs not including union nominations is also disingenuous. The party has never managed this information historically – affiliates manage their own nominations. I am pretty sure the same happened in 2010, but that was before Falkirk.

    @Tafia: it is a measure of utter daftness that you judge Murphy on who wants him within Scottish Labour or unions, rather than…er…Scottish voters, hello? He has just been at the centre of a campaign which won!

    @Ex-Labour: a fair point.

  15. Tafia says:

    @Tafia: it is a measure of utter daftness that you judge Murphy on who wants him within Scottish Labour or unions, rather than…er…Scottish voters, hello? He has just been at the centre of a campaign which won!

    He took part in a march with Orangemen. He stood with the tories. He made promises which haven’t been kept (hence the collapse of Scottish Labour). The scottish unions don’t support hiim and are quite open that in the bizarre event of him winning they will still openly oppose him. The scottish Labour membership doesn’t want him.

    When Findlay wins, what will Westminster Labour do? Because he openly despises them and has already promised he won’t take orders from them and they in turn don’t want him. Should be fun to watch.

    And as for scottish voters – have a look at the opinion polls.

  16. Tafia says:

    “Meanwhile, a separate poll for YouGov carried out throughout November of 18-24-year-olds further lays bare Labour’s problems in Scotland. While Labour leads across the UK, in Scotland they trail third behind the SNP and Greens, with 48% backing the SNP, the Greens in second place on 15% and Labour just one percentage point ahead of the Tories on 14%.”

    Scottish Labour – yesterday’s party

  17. Tafia says:

    Rob Marchant – this is one of many reasons why the scots have turned against Labour.


    Now where do you stand on this issue? Murphy stands against the SNP over this – which means he’s effectively against the the living wage as well and therefore against the scottish unions and Scotland’s low paid. The SNP however is campaigning for Holyrood to set the minimum wage levels in Scotland and not Westminster and is forcing it as a devolution issue and flanking Scottish Labour in the process. Which then raises another paradox – does Labour support Scotland’s right to set higher wages than England? Or does it oppose it – it must be one or the other, there is no neutral position.

  18. PD says:

    So Jim Murphy, a right-wing, pro-tuition fee, pro-Iraq, Westminster, Blairite is Labour’s answer to its vote collapsing in Scotland? He represents every reason Scotland is sick of the modern Labour party. The London-centric Labour party actually seem to think that coming within 4.8% of Scotland leaving the United Kingdom is a ringing endorsement!

  19. uglyfatbloke says:

    Murphy presumably has the support of Ed Miliband, but he certainly has the support of Nicola Sturgeon. Surely that should be a cause for concern?

  20. John reid says:

    benM, surely you’re not denying that falkirk was wrong, and more loyal to Unite, style labour blogs are ignoring this, is that O.K?

  21. Rob Marchant says:

    @Tafia “When Findlay wins…”

    That’s an awfully confident statement for a candidate whom the bookies have at about 1/20 of the odds to win of his rival.

    @uglyfatbloke: I’m really not sure where you got the idea that Sturgeon would be delighted at a Murphy selection. Sources please.

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