Stitch ups have been around as long as the Labour Party itself. From the days when the party was a federal alliance of political groups, societies and trade unions to now when, officially at least, everything is a member-led process; too often the selection of candidates has been in the gift of cliques. Whether it's elites in London, the regions, or the executives of Constituency Labour Parties sewing up contests for their mates, or for services rendered, or for placating different bits of the party, fixing and manipulating selections is one awful tradition Labour has stuck by unswervingly.
Which brings us to the row that has broken out over Falkirk. Itself the site of previous shenanigans when Dennis Canavan was dumped by the Blairites and Eric Joyce shoehorned into the seat. Our Eric, before he became notorious for, how shall we say, his exuberant behaviour in Strangers, was one of those former army officer candidates the party top brass go simply gaga for. However, since he announced his intention to step down in 2015 he has grown increasingly concerned that Falkirk is on the alleged receiving end of a stitch up orchestrated by Unite.
Here's what the Blairite outriders over at Labour Uncut have to say:
In October last year, Labour party HQ started to receive packs of membership forms accompanied by a single cheque, cut by the union, to pay for all of the members’ annual subscriptions.Oh dear. Small wonder the NEC were forced to act and put the constituency party into special measures.
As the forms piled up at head office in Brewers Green in London, party officials started to get nervous.
Normally, membership applications are processed within days and contact is quickly made by the party with the new member.
Not so for Falkirk West.
A Labour official speaking off the record to Uncut was clear about the suspicious nature of what was happening, “the only time this sort of thing has gone on has been either in places like Tower Hamlets or Birmingham, or way back in the 1980s when Militant was active”
The forms kept arriving but nothing was processed. Instead, worried officials sat on them. Experience told them that this was an attempt to rig the constituency vote in the run up to a parliamentary selection.
But Unite is a powerful presence in the Labour party.
Not only is the union Labour’s largest funder, the general secretary, Len McCluskey, is a former flatmate of Labour campaigns’ supremo, Tom Watson. In the case of Falkirk West, the links were even stronger given Unite’s preferred candidate, Karie Murphy, is employed by Tom Watson as his office manager and is also close to Len McCluskey.
Months passed since the first of the new member applications had been submitted and still the officials prevaricated, trapped between their concerns and the wrath of Unite.
Then, mysteriously, at the start of this year, the impasse was broken: all of the memberships were approved.
Before we get into this particular case, I have to say I almost admire the cheek of Uncut and in particular, writing in Progress, Peter Mandelson. These were the people who, in case it needs to be said, presided over stitch up after deselection after nobbled shortlist for nigh-on 25 years. As a party grandee Mandelson may be less Voldemort and more Hagrid these days, but come on. His "isn't this selection business with Unite really awful? *innocent face*" won't wash with anyone. Perhaps if it was prefaced by a long and detailed self-criticism of his own past manipulation of the party, it might be. Might.
But as with all stitch-ups, I don't know what I find most offensive. The attempted subversion of the democratic selection process (such as it is), or the contempt shown the membership by organising it in such a cack-handed, outrageous, and blatantly clumsy manner as per Falkirk. It's between fulminating against abuses of process, and wishing our anonymous would-be fixer be sentenced to a barely ventilated basement with only Old Ted's Problems of Entrism and John Golding's Hammer of the Left for company.
And so we're left with a potentially damaging episode with threats of legal action and angry rejoinders flying around. Oh what a lovely (internal) war!
The thing is this whole episode was entirely unnecessary. The Labour Party isn't so much a basket case that trade union-friendly candidates, such as Sister Murphy, have to rely on a phalanx of paid-for applications landing on the membership officer's desk. What Unite and other trade unions need to do is engage properly with the party.
One of the myths spun me before I joined Labour was the idea it was a husk. Working class people had disappeared and all that was left were continuity Blairistas and place seekers. Your average CLP was, basically, the place socialist principles went to die. Experience, they say, is the best teacher and so it proved. It always amuses me to be lectured on the sociological characteristics of the Labour Party by people who haven't been inside for 20 years or, in many cases, have never been a member. But I digress. My local party was desiccated in the same way the local trades council and all other labour movement organisations were. And how could it be otherwise after 30 years of working class political decline? But what I also found in Stoke Central's case was the extreme arm's length relationship that existed between the constituency party and its affiliated unions. These in nearly all cases were pure formalities. A union would send in an affiliation cheque every year - usually about 12 quid - and occasionally make some of its regional staff available for election days, but that was it.
The most depressing manifestation of this bureaucratism would be when local council candidates would go cap in hand to the local potters' union, Unity and get a few hundred quid out of the then general secretary with the expectation of nothing in return.
What I've been doing as an officer of my CLP and latterly vice chair of Stoke-on-Trent Labour's Local Campaign Forum is to work hard replacing this bureaucratic relationship with a real, living rank-and-file relationship between individual trade unionists and the party they're affiliated to. It's not easy. Some unions are receptive while others like to squirrel their members away and shield them from the wider labour movement. But the patient spade work is paying off as more members with a trade union background join and get involved. And on the bureaucratic side there are many more branches affiliated now than when I became Trade Union Liaison two years ago.
See, it appears to me if Unite want to recruit 5,000 members to Labour from its own ranks, then it should actually do so. Speaking as a Unite member myself who regularly attends a recently-constituted megabranch, I have seen precious little evidence of an internal campaign that encourages fellow trade unionists to sign up. Constituency parties up and down the land would positively welcome trade unions making the case for Labour membership and the thousands of members it could pour into CLPs. So where's the recruitment drive? Where's the clear message that it is in Unite members' interests to get as many members into the party as possible?
Doing these things is what proper engagement should look like. If unions want to ensure their influence is perceived as legitimate, they need to work at getting members in and ensure that's sustained over the long-term. It won't stop stitch ups - nothing short of root-and-branch reform and, perhaps, outside regulation would. But it might avoid future Falkirks.