Monday, 8 June 2015

In the battle for post-Miliband Labour, Unite’s leadership fights from a position of weakness, not strength

When you are on the back foot, play the victim. The underdog. Under attack from the establishment. If they ask awkward questions, do not accept the premise of the question. Thus has the hard left defended itself against any kind of rational criticism based on mere facts, for decades.

In a remarkably disingenuous, more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger piece at LabourList entitled “Setting the record straight over Unite’s position in Scotland”, Pat Rafferty, Unite’s Scottish General Secretary, writes how Unite tried to save Scottish Labour…but they wouldn’t listen. If only they’d listened to us. Instead, an unnamed “some in the Labour Party” are trying to “attack” Unite. Poor things.

Honestly, what rubbish. Unite was part of the problem, not the solution. At the root of Labour’s wipeout was the parlous state of Scottish Labour. The end result of decades of hegemonic machine politics, of which Unite was an integral part. An overbearing, one-horse town politics on which the carpet was lifted in the debacle that was the Falkirk selection, where the union was accused of manipulating the vote. A debacle that, let us not forget, led directly to the biggest-ever shakeup in Labour’s relationship with unions.


No, it was that, and the SNP’s gradually building itself as a credible alternative government to that Labour hegemony, which lost Scotland’s Westminster seats. Not a sudden surge of nationalism. Many of the SNP’s voters do not even want independence and, should we still need reminding, No won the referendum, not Yes.

But with so much managed from Holyrood, Westminster is now a throwaway election for many Scots, much as the Euros have come to be for much of the rest of Britain. A place to register protest. And they did.

Scottish voters also saw how Unite’s disastrous bluster came close to destroying thousands of jobs in a dispute at the country’s only oil refinery in 2013, only to end up with a worse deal for their members than that originally on the table. According to YouGov, half of the Scots surveyed thought Unite’s actions at Grangemouth were wrong. The convenor? Step forward Stevie Deans, chair of, er, Falkirk CLP.

After all that, who in Scottish Labour would be a friend to Unite now? No wonder they selected Jim Murphy over the Unite-backed Neil Findlay, and the union itself is hinting at backing the SNP in future, rather than Labour. And after helping pile on the pressure to oust Murphy, against the wishes of his own Executive, Unite must surely realise that the game is up: that Scottish Labour, like much of Labour nationally and many of the union’s own members, is heartily fed up of its current leadership.

Away from Scotland, there was then another disingenuous LabourList piece, this time from Jennie Formby, Unite’s Director of Politics, trying to rebut some reasonable criticisms of the union by the Director of the Progress think-tank, Richard Angell.

“…he omits to record that Len McCluskey spoke out, on behalf of Unite, against any such proposal.  That is because our union believes in debate and in fighting the battle of ideas…

Clearly, Richard is not overwhelmed by gratitude, since he singles Unite and its General Secretary out for aggressive criticism.”

“Aggressive”; ah, the victim card again. And Angell, it seems, was terribly ungrateful: he was supposed to thank Unite’s leadership for not joining in the GMB’s calls to outlaw his organisation. How very dare he.

Then there was the hotly-denied report from Barry Sheerman MP of “pressurising MPs” in the Commons, with MPs asked to ensure some candidates didn’t reach the nominations threshold.

Okay, public perceptions of politicians may be at a historic low, and they do make mistakes, but do we genuinely think that an MP would just make this up, which is what Unite seems to be suggesting?

And then – ironic, that a union supposedly dedicated to “the battle of ideas” should crudely try to to silence its critics – Unite’s leadership arranges a lawyer’s letter to threaten one of Fleet Street’s most decent journalists, Nick Cohen, for daring to speak his mind about them (Cohen and his editor, Fraser Nelson, rightly sent them packing).

Finally, let us not forget how Andrew Murray, Unite’s chief of staff, said he brought “a message of support from our general secretary, Len McCluskey” to a Tower Hamlets rally for disgraced ex-mayor Lutfur Rahman. A move that McCluskey hastily rowed back from when he realised it placed him amongst fools and loons;  supporting a man whom an electoral court had stripped of office, after finding against him on charges of vote-rigging.

Hmm. Not a good look for Unite, that. Not after Falkirk.

Look how the last few weeks have seen a wave of self-justification and self-defence (usually in the form of attack) from Unite. Are these – as the Tory press loves, wrongly, to imply – the actions of a dominant, self-confident union, securing exactly what it wants from the party?

Or a desperate one, clinging on to its last vestiges of influence, even as it pours huge amounts of money into Labour for ever-diminishing returns?

The question is: how much can it really influence the leadership campaign, the big political play of the day? Uncut has written how the process could conceivably be got around, and that possibility remains to be disproved: but let us assume for a moment that Labour HQ has made it sufficiently tight. The answer may then be, surprisingly little.

If you still think that the union is fighting from a position of strength, think about this. Who would have ever thought that Labour-union relations could come to this, a real possibility of a leadership election where the candidates might not even want the support of Britain’s largest union?

Andy Burnham, already having spurned its money, now has a difficult choice: does he still openly seek Unite’s nomination and risk it damaging his campaign irreparably, as the press cast him as a McCluskey stooge? Or does he eschew it and hope that he can manage without the union’s backing, thus potentially diminishing his desired broad coalition among members?*

Assertion: Unite’s political support is now largely a liability, not an asset. Not just in the country: even in much of the Labour Party, whose members, we should not forget, voted for David Miliband in 2010. Politically, Unite needs the party to lend it credibility much more than the other way around.

Ergo, the only thing it has to offer Labour is money. The leadership campaigns, and the party, would be well-advised to starve rather than accept it. That, after all, was the whole point of Miliband’s reforms.


* There is also a third option: don’t ask for an open endorsement but get behind-the-scenes help anyway. But this is probably not sustainable:  people aren’t stupid.

This post first published at Labour Uncut

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