Friday, 21 February 2014

Falkirk: an epilogue

Scotland, intrigue and laying ghosts to rest. Surely the only things
missing from this story were the witches and Lady Macbeth.
Two weeks ago, in all of the excitement of Ed Miliband’s surprisingly successful bid to reform Labour party power structures, a parallel development was almost buried in the bigger story, apart from at the Guardian, which broke it.

The night before the NEC was due to ponder the matter, the full report which Ed Miliband had steadfastly refused to publish was, finally, mysteriously leaked. Whether it was the party, or Unite, or the Guardian itself, or even the Tories ineptly trying to cause trouble, we may never know.

The Labour party has made – caveats notwithstanding – big progress in dealing with the root cause, and there is already a new candidate for Falkirk. The story is over.

But before we lay its ghost to rest, and after the extraordinary impact it has had on the course of Labour Party history, it behoves us to spend a little time understanding exactly what did happen.

Leafing through the 20-page report, a few things stand out.

There seems little doubt that recruitment was carried out in contravention of party rules; or that it was later generally agreed to pretend that things were otherwise.

Any recruitment purely for the purposes of manipulating a selection is against the rules but, since intent is evidently difficult to establish, there exist a number of controls (such as signatures, rules prohibiting bulk payments, application acceptance criteria and freeze dates) to ensure that such recruitment is minimised, if not wholly eliminated. These controls were all jumped in various ways: single cheques for multiple applications, backdating, signing on others’ behalf and so on. Police found insufficient evidence to classify these practices as illegal, but that is hardly the point; internal selections are hardly processes with much legal standing anyway.

Lorraine Kane, the Falkirk grandma briefly famous for raising concerns about Falkirk recruitment, stated (point 16) she “has concerns about the way Unite in Falkirk are recruiting party members” and that “I or my family did not fill in or sign any forms”. The report says she felt she had been “bullied” by Karie Murphy into signing a Direct Debit (point 18). There are various other signs of pressure being applied to potential members. We should remember how, in a town dominated by the Grangemouth plant, its principal trade union can cast a very long shadow.

The idea that candidate and friend of Unite leader Len McCluskey, Karie Murphy, was not involved with the signing up of new members with the aim of getting herself selected as candidate is farcical. Check, for example, notes on forms delivered to party HQ read “Karie collecting Tuesday”, “Karie has emailed to check status”, “Karie to recall didn’t have bank details”.

Indeed, one extraordinary development (Appendix 1, points 10-15) was how it seems (remembering, of course, Murphy’s day-job as Watson’s office manager) that Tom Watson’s office seemed to become a focal point for queries about batches of membership applications.

For those unaware of how the party operates, it has a membership department outsourced to a third-party company, which has a relationship with the central party membership function at head office. It is clear that the formal flows of approvals and application forms should not touch the offices of MPs under normal circumstances, unless of course we are talking about the office of the local MP where the member was recruited. Which we are not.

So, how the office of the party’s then deputy chair – not to mention the general secretary of Britain’s largest union – ended up intimately involved with the nitty-gritty of processing membership applications in a Scottish constituency is really a testament to how messed-up the system had become. But it is also hard to avoid the conclusion that the pair’s interest in specific batches of membership applications, in one Scottish constituency was because, and only because, of their links to Karie Murphy.

Then there is the comedy value of the whole episode. Party investigator Jane Shaw arrives at the home of the McDermott family (Appendix 5) to investigate some dubious applications. And who, we ask, should answer the door?

Step forward her relative-by-marriage, Stephen Deans: Grangemouth convenor, Unite Chair in Scotland and chair of Falkirk West CLP; the man – along with Karie Murphy – at the centre of the controversy. According to the report, the conversation (and I paraphrase) goes something like this:

“Hi, is Brenda there?” 
“Er, no, she’s decided not to meet with you after all. She feels pressurised.” 
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that”.
“You’re just coming down here to try and target me and my family in Bonnybridge, aren’t you?” 
“No, actually, we’re seeing quite a few different people in different places.”
“Amazing. All we’re trying to do is rebuild a moribund local party, by recruiting a few members, and this is the thanks we get”.
You couldn’t make it up. The report cites Deans’ justification as that his recruitment efforts were nothing whatsoever to do with Murphy’s candidacy and her links to Unite; that they were merely selflessly looking to get more members and didn’t care which way they voted in a parliamentary selection. Poor old misunderstood Mr Deans.

Finally, the role of the Guardian newspaper is perhaps the most bizarre. While its Stop-the-War-supporting columnist Seumas Milne was happy to act as cheerleader for McCluskey around the time the controversy first broke, both in thepiece he wrote after seeing the summary report and in his contribution to Radio 4’s extraordinarily poorly-informed documentary on the subject, one might be forgiven for thinking that the publication of this rather damning report might have finally been taken as an opportunity for rectifying things. For admitting that the paper (in marked contrast to the Times) had called the whole story completely wrong from the start.

But no, uniquely among newspapers, it chose to write this frankly less-than-impartial news piece, noting merely Murphy’s denial of any wrongdoing and how her reputation was “shredded”. And then this “analysis” piece by the same journalist, Rajeev Syal, which comments that various claims are “exaggeration” or “only partially backed by evidence”. One truly wonders if we were all reading the same report.

In the end, the report confirms what we already knew: things happened in Falkirk which should not be tolerated in a modern political party.

It was not so much about the bending of the rules per se. It was the inescapable conclusion that the intervention of senior figures in this way makes a complete mockery of the idea of a level playing field in Labour’s parliamentary selections.

Some commentators have expressed surprise that Miliband took this so seriously, but they seem to be missing the point. Apart from the clear necessity for any leader worth their salt to repel a political border skirmish, there is a hugely important question which this whole business raises for the party: why would decent candidates come forward to be MPs, knowing they are playing in a system where the dice are so obviously loaded?

Falkirk is over, thank heavens, and the result will ultimately be good for the party. But the story of the party’s relationship with Unite and the unhealthy culture that union has created both locally and nationally is, one suspects, far from over.



This post first published at Labour Uncut and was selected for Progress' What We're Reading

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