There is a distant rumbling going on within the labour movement, with parliament in recess and the media in silly season, which will surely last until conference. It may, in fact, last until next Spring’s special conference. Or it may even last until the next general election.
Perhaps thanks to the timely intervention of the summer holidays, the media circus seems to have moved on from the Falkirk selection debacle.
But not so fast. This one will continue to rumble, and the reason is simple: we have ended the current chapter with two poles of the Labour party power structure effectively giving diametrically opposing versions of events, and both cannot be right. This uneasy truce is neither sustainable in the long-term – truth will invariably out – nor making for anything like a trusting relationship in the near future.
To recap: Miliband has supported his party organisation, who seem to be telling him that Unite made moves to fix the selection. Len McCluskey, on the other hand, denies any wrongdoing whatsoever on the part of his union. He, along with various other party figures, is asking for the report of the party’s internal investigation to be published.
This is in spite of the fact that some clear facts are known: that people were signed up as party members without their knowledge and that the clear beneficiary was Karie Murphy, described by Channel 4 as a “close friend” of McCluskey and office manager to Tom Watson MP, his friend and former flatmate. The chair of Unite in Scotland, Stephen Deans, also happened to be, very handily, the chair of Falkirk West constituency Labour party.
We may never know the full contents of that report; if it has not been published or leaked by now, it seems pretty likely that it never will be. It is also completely understandable why: it would very likely cause a massive and unwanted row between the two sides. Miliband is stuck. One cannot help speculating that McCluskey is perhaps only calling for it to be published out of pure brinkmanship, because he knows that Miliband will not do it. But whatever the answer, the report itself is now key.
In the midst of all of this, BBC Radio 4 made a rather intriguing recent programme called “Fight over Falkirk”. Intriguing because its “storm in a teacup” conclusion seemed to go directly against what insiders have been saying for weeks.
The three key BBC claims were: one, that at least some of irregularities were not down to recruitment through Unite’s Union Join scheme anyway; two, that the NEC didn’t see the full report, only a damning executive summary; and three, that the body of the report didn’t seem to support that summary.
The first of these is straightforward; there are many ways to influence selections, including for the recruitment to be done within the normal party application procedure, thereby also making them more difficult to trace (if you want examples of how this is possible, try the other thirteen constituencies in “special measures”). The key question is clearly which candidate would have benefitted, not which scheme they joined under.
Second, the reason why the NEC was not given a copy of the sensitive full report is blindingly obvious. The NEC is leaky as a sieve and stuffed full of union delegates, including three from Unite; not exactly the way to keep a secret. Speed was also of the essence, another reason not to take a detailed report through sub-committees. It does not mean the decision was not right.
The third issue is fascinating, that the full report supposedly disagreed with the executive summary. And that is because it seems that no-one willing to speak about it has even seen the full report. So no-one can vouch for those vital differences claimed by the BBC. Not even, apparently, Hannah Barnes, who made the programme, or Channel 4’s Michael Crick, who tweeted that he had “talked to people” who had seen it.
No-one except, it transpires, for one journalist, called as the star witness by the BBC, who had seen it (but apparently not been given a copy to leak, so the story could have been verified). Who could this ruthlessly objective investigative reporter be?Step forward, Seumas Milne of the Guardian. Among other things, like McCluskey, long-time speaker at Stop the War Coalition rallies; apologist for unpleasant regimes in Iran and Gaza; a man who memorably claimed that Al Qaeda were notmotivated by “a hatred of western freedoms and way of life” (indeed, perish the thought). You get the picture, but a potted history of the Milne journalistic and political oeuvre can be found here.
Milne is also on the advisory panel of the Unite backed think-tank, CLASS, run out of its Holborn offices. It’s not as if he and McCluskey don’t both know who the other is, or that their political views are far apart. Most importantly of all, Milne is someone it is difficult to imagine saying a bad word about McCluskey or Unite – in fact, he wrote a glowing report of McCluskey’s election in 2010 – although Uncutwould be delighted to hear any cases of this happening. Just for balance.
So, in the BBC interview clip – gosh, what a surprise! – Milne claims that this “hoo-hah” is based on “a relative handful of cases” and summarily blames the whole thing on the “Blairite wing” of the party. Yes, we are back to the tediously familiar “Blairite conspiracy” narrative, despite the inconvenient fact that most left in 2010, and that Miliband and his inner circle are self-evidently not Blairites.
Ok, we understand that the dull intricacies of selection processes might not be easy to grasp for even a political journalist. But the third point seems merely poor judgement: why would you base such a crucial part of your evidence on the testimony of one person already known to be sympathetic?
To be fair, the media operation was wholly professional. After its airing, various McCluskey supporters immediately took to Twitter to demand an apology for the terrible way Unite had been treated. Blogger Owen Jones (for a short time employed as a freelance adviser at CLASS), was one of the first. McCluskey himself, having by that point already committed himself to Miliband’s proposals to reform the relationship with unions, stood back and let others do his fighting for him.
So, the situation remains unresolved and, as we approach conference season, is looking highly likely to remain so. But the fact remains that Miliband said, as Channel 4’s Michael Crick reported, that Unite recruited people as Labour members without their knowledge.
Either Miliband or McCluskey must be being economical, as they say, with the truth.Further, the bizarre corollary of the BBC report is this: that Miliband has deliberately blown this up to look for a showdown. Uncut criticises Miliband often enough, when he deserves it – but who could be daft enough to think he was spoiling for a fight? A man less likely to pick a fight with a union leader it’d be hard to find.
And the police not taking action in Falkirk is irrelevant: what is relevant is whether party rules were being broken (they were).
The boundaries between party and union blurred (as the BBC reported, Unite even brazenly paid for a survey to ask members if they would mind having an All Women Shortlist, which would have been a great help to Murphy. How can that be fair?). Of course the party is to blame, too, for letting this go on under its very nose. But no, “move along, nothing to see” will just not cut it at this point.
Oh, and that distant rumbling in the background? That’s the sound of unfinished business.
This post first published at Labour Uncut