Friday, 5 December 2014

Unite has learned nothing from the Falkirk debacle

Last week, we started to see just how much some quarters of the Labour Party do not want Jim Murphy to become their leader in Scotland. It was not so much the carefully-crafted hatchet job from Tom Watson, which followed that of old flat-mate Len McCluskey, leader of the Unite union, from a few weeks earlier.

No, it was the landing on Scottish Unite members’ doormats of ballot packs from their union.

Of course, under the One Member, One Vote system which has been in place for two decades, union leaders no longer allocate millions of their members’ votes; the members decide freely for themselves, under a ballot organised by the union.

Or, at least, that’s the theory.

The reality is that they decide a little less freely than that: some union leaders seem to think freedom, like a number of political leaders before them, is a commodity so valuable that it needs to be rationed.

And so, Scotland’s Sunday Herald reported, the GMB continued to do what it did in the 2010 leadership election for the national party: it put in only the leaflet of its favoured candidate, Neil Findlay, into the voting pack.

But that was nothing compared what Unite got up to: it actually placed a “mock” ballot paper inside the pack alongside the real one, with an X against the box of its favoured candidate. All you had to do was to copy this X onto the real ballot paper in the same place and, hey presto. A more transparent attempt to “help” the voter to vote would be hard to imagine.

It is perfectly legitimate for the leadership to express a preference. What is not acceptable, as standard practice in postal ballots clearly shows, is to express it in the ballot pack.

Now, imagine if you received a postal ballot paper for next year’s general election and you had only seen the literature of one candidate come through your door in an official Freepost pack. You’d feel the others had been treated unfairly, wouldn’t you?

And, let us be clear: if a parliamentary election were to be held with a “mock” ballot paper finding its way into the ballot pack, as Unite managed to do, there would rightly be a national outcry. Heads would roll. It would inevitably be considered such a serious procedural breach that the election would have to be re-run, and such an event has surely never happened in any state election within living memory.

It would be difficult to envisage, say, the Electoral Reform Society endorsing a system like Unite’s. Or any similar practices ever being adopted by the Electoral Commission. It is more reminiscent of the kind of sharp practice that has allegedly occurred in elections in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets.

But because this is an internal election, there is no statutory requirement for fairness. Ah, internal elections aren’t supposed to be that democratic, eh? But just because something is legal does not make it ethical or right.

Will it matter in the end? One suspects not, for two reasons:

One, that many Unite members are likely to be irritated by this incompetently crude attempt to try and sway their views. It is an insult to their intelligence and will most likely turn out to be counter-productive.

Two, that Murphy is likely sufficiently far ahead in the polling anyway that even if it were to have a negative effect on his vote, it would probably not affect the final result. But it just might.

And what is most astonishing is this. The controversy over the Falkirk parliamentary selection – something Unite Scotland was at the centre of – having been the trigger for a complete overhaul of the party’s internal democracy, culminated in a special conference vote last March to change them.

And yet – and yet – Unite’s leadership is still sufficiently lacking in self-awarenessto try and influence the result of an election, through a practice which would clearly not be endorsed by any electoral body.

And if you disagree with that assertion, Mr McCluskey, I invite you to ask the Electoral Reform Society, or any other neutral body, to review this aspect of your voting system.

In other words it has proved Miliband’s argument, of the essentiality of pressing ahead with party reform, and then some. If there is anyone left in the party who seriously questions whether he overreacted, well, here’s your answer. Wake up.

Unite’s leadership has shown without a shadow of a doubt that it will continue to try and influence the votes of its members until and unless the organisation of that ballot is taken away from it and run neutrally from party HQ.

Happily, assuming the reforms go through as planned, it soon will be.

This post first published at Labour Uncut

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