Friday, 28 June 2013

Len, honestly, what do you take us for?


On Wednesday I posted a piece at Labour Uncut (later posted here at the Centre Left), summarising both developments in the Falkirk selection, where Unite stands accused by the Labour Party of interfering in the selection process, and the involvement of Unite in the People’s Asseembly.
Yesterday the New Statesman printed this piece containing a letter from Unite’s General Secretary, Len McCluskey, to its recently-recruited members, which bears reproducing in full:
Dear Brother/Sister
I am writing to you as one of the Unite members who are also members of the Falkirk Constituency Labour Party. You will have seen that the Labour Party has recently taken several decisions in relation to your CLP to which Unite is fundamentally opposed.
First, it has arbitrarily excluded all members who joined the CLP since March 2012 – which includes many of you – from any participation in the process to choose the next Labour parliamentary candidate in the constituency. Second, it has taken the shortlisting of candidates for selection out of the hands of the CLP and given it to a special panel. The aim of the first decision is to exclude trade unionists from the selection process, and the aim of the second is presumably to block any possibility of the Unite-supported candidate being chosen.
These decisions have been taken on the basis of an “investigation” into the CLP, the report of which your union has not been allowed to see. As a result, not only are the rights of Falkirk CLP members being ignored, Unite is being subjected to a behind-the-scenes smear campaign. We will be challenging this procedure and this campaign through all proper channels within the Party, publicly and by legal action if necessary.
Let me make it clear that at all times we have operated fully within the Party rules and have acted just as the Party wishes us to do in recruiting more members to Labour. We will not let your conduct be called into question. It is certainly our belief that Labour needs more trade unionists in Parliament, as opposed to seats being handed out on a grace-and-favour basis to Oxbridge-educated “special advisers”, but we make no apology for that. Labour’s future depends on it becoming more representative of the communities it seeks to represent.
I would ask you to fully support the union in the stand we are taking in Falkirk, and I assure you that you will be kept fully informed as to developments going forward.
Thank you for your support
Yours sincerely
Len McCluskey
General Secretary

Given that the letter is a consummate exercise in weaselling, I thought it worth reflecting on, point by point.
One. The letter claims that Labour has “arbitrarily excluded all members who joined the CLP since March 2012 – which includes many of you – from any participation in the process to choose the next Labour parliamentary candidate in the constituency.”
Here – “arbitrarily” – he is implying that they have done something which may have unfairly hit some members. However, if there’s more than a handful of members who had joined during the previous sixteen months without already being part of the several hundred which were allegedly signed up by Unite to secure the nomination of their favoured candidate, I’ll eat my hat. Labour Party membership is a minority interest at the best of times. The overwhelming majority of people excluded are clearly those signed up, apparently by a highly questionable method, by Unite. Now they are crying “foul”.
If you get a few extra members each month in most CLPs, you’re doing pretty well. So, there are clearly a negligible number of people affected who were not specifically signed up by Unite for this purpose.
Two. “It has taken the shortlisting of candidates for selection out of the hands of the CLP and given it to a special panel. The aim of the first decision is to exclude trade unionists from the selection process, and the aim of the second is presumably to block any possibility of the Unite-supported candidate being chosen.”
Yes, the imposition of a special panel is a last resort in cases where there is a strong suspicion of fixing. Given the magnitude of the charges against Unite – that it recruited members specifically for the purpose of winning a selection, processed them en masse and backdated memberships by leaning on party staff, it’s hardly surprising. To be honest, given the state of the process and the propensity that selections have to get fixed, I believe that the sanction of special measures should probably be imposed in more cases, not less. But the aim is clearly not "to exclude trade unionists from the selection process" - indeed, trade unionists from other unions, who have played the game, will be welcome.

Three. “These decisions have been taken on the basis of an ‘investigation’ into the CLP, the report of which your union has not been allowed to see.” The scare quotes around “investigation” imply that the party was trying to victimise Unite, when in reality they were probably trying to find reasons to deal with this as quickly and quietly as possible, to stop it becoming a big news story. And of course Unite were not allowed to see it, they were the ones being investigated. Duh.
Four. “As a result, not only are the rights of Falkirk CLP members being ignored, Unite is being subjected to a behind-the-scenes smear campaign.”
The rights of “Falkirk CLP members” are not being ignored: some Falkirk members (i.e. those who have joined since March 2012) have had one privilege removed, that of participating in the process (in this case, probably merely the selection from an NEC shortlist). The whole CLP has further had the right to making nominations removed, but that is quite understandable under the circumstances, since the process had been distorted by the new members. Though some long-standing members may be upset about this, some others are probably extremely thankful that the process cannot now be nobbled by third parties.
Five. “We will be challenging this procedure and this campaign through all proper channels within the Party, publicly and by legal action if necessary.”
Oh, a threat. Yes, good luck with that.
Six. “Let me make it clear that at all times we have operated fully within the Party rules and have acted just as the Party wishes us to do in recruiting more members to Labour.”
I have not a copy of the rulebook to hand, but I must admit that it seems pretty unlikely that the party rules allow the backdating of membership applications. Although it is perfectly reasonable to recruit a bunch of members (only with their full knowledge, mind), there is a minimum membership time before voting – I am told it is six months – required precisely to stop manoeuvres like this.
Seven. “We will not let your conduct be called into question.” Sorry, whose conduct? Ah, I see, it was nothing to do with Unite officials. Just a few members who decided to join off their own bats. Please, stop, this is hysterical.
Eight. “It is certainly our belief that Labour needs more trade unionists in Parliament” – well, that may well be a good thing, but what has happened is hardly a good advertisement for this policy – “as opposed to seats being handed out on a grace-and-favour basis to Oxbridge-educated “special advisers”, but we make no apology for that.”
Apart from being unhelpful intra-party class warfare – whatever happened to “we achieve more together than we do alone”? – it’s not exactly consistent. As my old party colleague, Adrian McMenamin, put it brilliantly:
Nine. One final, general point to deal with is that McCluskey has spent the last year accusing the New Labour pressure group, Progress, of similar kinds of actions, to try and bring everyone down to the same level. Disingenuous again: Progress would legitimately canvass upon behalf of candidates, yes. It would legitimately try and get supporters to meetings, yes. But it would not – and could not, lacking the means and the political support to do so – fix memberships in selections, even if it wanted to. Neither does it have the power to nominate candidates for the long list (not being a Labour affiliate), unlike Unite. Neither does it sit on any vetting panel, unlike Unite. For all these reasons, it is demonstrably a lot harder for Progress to get a candidate selected than it is for any major trade union.

Unite further claims that it is trying to "exclude trade unionists from any influence in the party", in its website statement on the matter. This is risible - Progress is an organisation that is largely marginalised. It has, patently, practically zero influence in the Leader's Office.

If you think this is happening with Progress, fetch us the evidence, Len. But you can’t, and now you are cross because your own union has been caught with its trousers down.
In short, this is a “move along, nothing to see” defence. It wasn’t me, it was those evil Blairites, guv. But it is disingenuous, it is inconsistent and it is transparent in the weakness of its denial. If this sounds angry and indignant, it is because I am both of those things.

This is not about political views, of left or right leanings within the broad church of the Labour party. I do not agree with McCluskey on party policy but there are many other decent people with whom I disagree who do not behave like this. Long live that debate and may the best argument win: vive la difference.
But this is not the case here.
No, a smarter politician or one not deliberately headed on a collision course with Labour, would realise that Unite has not a leg to stand on, cooperate with the investigation, distance themselves from what happened, punish those responsible and try and avoid a repetition.
McCluskey is not that man.

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