Horse-trading in Halifax

by Rob Marchant

Union money: “the cleanest in politics”, as some Labourites describe it, misty-eyed. To be fair, sometimes it is. There are decent unions who donate money because they actually want a Labour government. On the other hand, the cliché is that business donations always come with strings attached.

Let’s decide which of the two the following is.

Exhibit A: the Halifax selection, where Len McCluskey’s friend Karie Murphy was working hard, with the backing of the considerable weight of Britain’s largest union, to be its MP. The Sunday Times (£) wrote a couple of weeks ago that her place on the shortlist was being horse-traded for a previously-pledged donation of £1.5m to Labour’s election fund. Surely not?

After her failure to be shortlisted by the party’s Special Selections Panel, there were two possible outcomes: that Unite’s donation would then be delivered, and that it would not be delivered. Naturally, the outcome couldn’t possibly related to the Halifax selection. We’re talking about the cleanest money in politics, after all.

Oddly, the Telegraph reported last week that “a senior Unite figure said the union could withhold any further funding for final two months of the campaign and demand Miss Murphy is allowed to run for another seat this election.”

It is also important to note that Labour is perfectly entitled – and always has been – to select shortlists close to an election. The party has never pretended that this first stage is democratic – it can’t afford to be, when you only have weeks to establish a candidate and try to win – it is only afterwards that the local party gets to choose from the shortlisted candidates.

On the other hand, one might also argue that if Ms Murphy had really wanted to have a fully democratic selection, she might have gone for a seat other than a last-minute selection. After all, there has been plenty of water under the bridge since her last attempt at being selected in…Scotland! Is that not the same Karie Murphy for whom that same union was accused of stitching up the seat for her Falkirk selection in 2013? Gosh.

Uncut will leave you to decide, dear reader, whether you think that the Telegraph story about quid pro quo for the Halifax non-shortlisting is correct. However, the longer we go on with said funds not being delivered, the more credible it looks. Bear in mind that we are rapidly approaching an election where that cash is clearly desperately needed, and Unite has hardly shown itself averse to strong-arm tactics in the past.

It is difficult not to conclude that Unite will never make the donation, or at least not before 7 May. But if that were the case, how could it be justified? Too obvious, surely.

Exhibit B: McCluskey’s piece at LabourList last week. A classic ploy of the hard left: claim victimhood while actually going on the attack.

“Our Movement is Built on its Values not Money”, the headline nobly claims. It does not dare directly attack Miliband, of course – that would be seen as too disloyal during a general election campaign – but “the apparent obsession of the media team around Ed Miliband who are constantly seeking opportunities for Ed to “face down Red Len” and Unite in order to show his macho authority”.

That last part should raise a smile: genuinely creditable though Miliband’s “facing down” of McCluskey has been – he did not, after all, give in and allow Murphy on the Halifax list, which would have been the path of least resistance – surely not even his truest admirers have ever accused him of being “macho”. Well, maybe Justine.

No, the overt message of the LabourList is one of solidarity: let’s all get our heads down and work towards “a Labour victory”. How fraternal.

Yes, poor old put-upon-victim Unite, not knowing where its next million is coming from, while Labour has a fighting fund which is much depleted from previous campaigns and facing a Tory party spending not far off double that. In that context is difficult to see how Labour is strong and Unite weak; that it is the aggressor and Unite the victim.

So, let’s examine an alternative hypothesis, that this might not be a defence, but a veiled threat that union funds will not be forthcoming. The voice even, perhaps, of someone looking for an ex-ante justification of a knockout financial blow about to be given.

The irony here is that the whole purpose of the party reform agenda put in place by Miliband last year was to prevent exactly this kind of thing happening. That a gun could be held to his head every time a union leader wanted their own way. If we ever needed a further justification for why the reform agenda is needed to be fully implemented more than ever, it is this.

Now, it is still possible that the party could end up in power: for this reason no final decision is likely to be made on the donation now. A bet is being hedged until after the election.

But in the event of a Labour loss – in which case McCluskey last year threatened to disaffiliate Unite from the party and form his own – it is clear that there will be a huge political bunfight which could tear the whole labour movement apart. Indeed, the Sunday Times this weekend reported (£) that changing its constitution to allow it to fund other parties was already tabled for a Unite “rules conference” in July.

The alternative to carrying out the threat, of course, is to stay in and align with whichever leadership candidate is prepared to take Unite’s sizeable shilling. But the price to that future leadership hopeful will undoubtedly be high.

All in all, not exactly the actions of a loyal friend to the party. It is high time that party figures stopped defending him.

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


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12 Responses to “Horse-trading in Halifax”

  1. Michael Worcs says:

    Donors give small amounts of money because they believe in a parties agenda. Donors give large amounts of money because they feel it will give them influence. A cap on donation of both the Unions and Private donors would be good for democracy.

  2. paul barker says:

    In order to understand McCluskeys position you have to realise that most of the opposition to him in Unite is from his left, activists who want to break with Labour now. Its hard to beleive that Murphys selection was really seen as that important, to me she looks like a handy excuse for keeping the money.
    Its hard to see what Unite are really doing here, have they already decided to break away or are they waiting to see how badly Labour do ?

  3. steve says:

    I’m a member of Unite and, for the life of me, I can’t understand why my union remains affiliated to the out-of-touch Labour Party with its leadership of talentless Blairites.

    However, following the Collins report the unions are now being bundled out through the back door. What a shame that the unions didn’t proudly walk out of the front door when the LP’s growing irrelevance became apparent.

  4. First we have Rob talking about McCluskey –

    It does not dare directly attack Miliband, of course – that would be seen as too is loyal during a general election campaign…

    Then Rob says –

    …surely not even his truest admirers have ever accused him of being “macho”. Well, maybe Justine.

    Is it just me, or is there a whiff of hypocrisy?

  5. @Michael: I agree.

    @PaulBarker: In fact I think that won’t be given as the excuse, it’s too shabby-looking. It will be some story that Miliband has disappointed them by not being left-wing enough, etc. I think they are waiting to see the result but have plans for both outcomes.

    @Steve: Ha!

    “What a shame that the unions didn’t proudly walk out of the front door when the LP’s growing irrelevance became apparent.”

    You think Unite is becoming (a) more relevant or (b) less relevant to people’s lives?

  6. steve says:

    “You think Unite is becoming (a) more relevant or (b) less relevant to people’s lives?”

    Given that membership of trade unions is optional, Unite members (a 50,000 increase was reported in 2012) must consider their membership to be relevant.

    More or less relevant? Well, like the NHS, a trade union can become more relevant when particular difficulties arise and less so when particular difficulties are absent.

    Certainly, for members like myself, who no longer trust Labour’s careerist elite, trade unions are becoming more politically relevant. This is because of their role in developing an alternative to what Paul Krugman terms “austerity madness”.

    Now if you want to enjoy some full-blown, decreasing relevance you should take a look at Scottish Labour – from the mainstream to the margins in less than one electoral cycle.

    And consider the Labour Party as a whole – nearly 5 million votes lost between 1997 and 2010, most of them lost on Blair’s watch.

    That truly is an astonishing achievement.

  7. John p reid says:

    Danny, having a piece of banter, that Eds not macho, is hardly knocking him, of anything its paying him a compliment

  8. paul barker says:

    Today Unite promised £1Million for Labour funds. Does anyone know if this is part of the £1.5Million in the article above, or something else ? Have Unite got anything in return ?

  9. paul barker says:

    On the relevance of Unions, in 1980 Union membership peaked at 50% of the workforce, its now 20% – thats a pretty massive fall. There must be lots of reasons of course but part of the explanation is surely that Unions have become more Political & more obviously tied to one Party, a Party whose support has seen long-term decline. What most potential members want from Unions is more practical stuff & less hot air & posturing.

  10. Tafia says:

    Union membership has declined since 1980, but in Scotland it has dropped off a cliff since the referendum because the unions wouldn’t allow the membership in Scotland to have a vote as to whether they should back yes or no.

    Classic display of arrogance by the unions there. They exist to represent the wishes of their membership in all things at all times above everything else. Idf they don’t then they are pointless and their collapse in membership north of the border is entirely their own fault and all they deserve.

  11. Henrik says:

    @paul barker: I would be neither surprised nor scandalised to see the Unions “become more Political & more obviously tied to one Party” – quite the contrary, given that the Labour Party was created by the union movement to represent the interests of the working classes and, to the best of my knowledge, retain, most of them, a formal relationship with the party.

    …of course, how that relationship works is a matter for the unions and the party to sort out. Best of luck with that, comrades.

  12. Bob says:

    Unions are just about relevant in the public sector only for the indemnity insurance they provide otherwise members don’t bother in vast majority of cases to participate in union activities. Therefore they have been captured by a small minority.

    Where were the NHS unions when Stafford, East Kent , Basildon and Morcambe Bay were occurring, literally as silent as the patients graves.

    Major industries have changed, the labour intensive have gone, docks reduced manning due to containerisation, more efficient, less theft. Vehicle manufacturing, poor quality poor design and very poor management. Coal mines more closed under Labour and a suicidal leader starting a strike which was telegraphed to the government, allowing power stations coal stocks of millions of tons and a Prime Minister willing to fight. Remember the death of the taxi driver David Wilkie by criminals dropping a concrete slab on the taxi.

    Unions, would not throw water on them if they are on fire, petrol would be better.

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