Sunday, 29 March 2015

Horse-trading in Halifax

Union money: “the cleanest in politics”, as some Labourites are fond of describing it, a little misty-eyed. To be fair, sometimes it is. There are decent unions who donate money because they actually want a Labour government. On the other hand, the cliché is that business donations always come with strings attached.

Let’s decide which of the two the following is.

Exhibit A: the Halifax selection, where Len McCluskey’s friend Karie Murphy was working hard, with the backing of the considerable weight of Britain’s largest union, to be its MP. The Sunday Times (£) wrote a couple of weeks ago that her place on the shortlist was being horse-traded for a previously-pledged donation of £1.5m 
(£) to Labour’s election fund. Surely not?

After her failure to be shortlisted by the party’s Special Selections Panel, there were two possible outcomes: that Unite’s donation would then be delivered, and that it would not be delivered. Naturally, the outcome couldn’t possibly related to the Halifax selection. We’re talking about the cleanest money in politics, after all.

Oddly, the Telegraph reported last week that “a senior Unite figure said the union could withhold any further funding for final two months of the campaign and demand Miss Murphy is allowed to run for another seat this election.”

It is also important to note that Labour is perfectly entitled – and always has been – to select shortlists close to an election. The party has never pretended that this first stage is democratic – it can’t afford to be, when you only have weeks to establish a candidate and try to win – it is only afterwards that the local party gets to choose from the shortlisted candidates.

On the other hand, one might also argue that if Ms Murphy had really wanted to have a fully democratic selection, she might have gone for a seat other than a last-minute selection. After all, there has been plenty of water under the bridge since her last attempt at being selected in…Scotland! Is that not the same Karie Murphy for whom that same union was accused of stitching up the seat for her Falkirk selection in 2013? Gosh.

I will leave you to decide, dear reader, whether you think that the Telegraph story about quid pro quo for the Halifax non-shortlisting is correct. However, the longer we go on with said funds not being delivered, the more credible it looks. Bear in mind that we are rapidly approaching an election where that cash is clearly desperately needed, and Unite has hardly shown itself averse to strong-arm tactics in the past.

It is difficult not to conclude that Unite will never make the donation, or at least not before 7 May. But if that were the case, how could it be justified? Too obvious, surely.

Exhibit B: McCluskey’s piece at LabourList last week. A classic ploy of the hard left: claim victimhood while actually going on the attack.

“Our Movement is Built on its Values not Money”, the headline nobly claims. It does not dare directly attack Miliband, of course – that would be seen as too disloyal during a general election campaign – but “the apparent obsession of the media team around Ed Miliband who are constantly seeking opportunities for Ed to “face down Red Len” and Unite in order to show his macho authority”.

That last part should raise a smile: genuinely creditable though Miliband’s “facing down” of McCluskey has been – he did not, after all, give in and allow Murphy on the Halifax list, which would have been the path of least resistance – surely not even his truest admirers have ever accused him of being “macho”. Well, maybe Justine.

No, the overt message of the LabourList is one of solidarity: let’s all get our heads down and work towards “a Labour victory”. How fraternal.

Yes, poor old put-upon-victim Unite, not knowing where its next million is coming from, while Labour has a fighting fund which is much depleted from previous campaigns and facing a Tory party spending not far off double that. In that context is difficult to see how Labour is strong and Unite weak; that it is the aggressor and Unite the victim.

So, let’s examine an alternative hypothesis, that this might not be a defence, but a veiled threat that union funds will not be forthcoming. The voice even, perhaps, of someone looking for an ex-ante justification of a knockout financial blow about to be given.

The irony here is that the whole purpose of the party reform agenda put in place by Miliband last year was to prevent exactly this kind of thing happening. That a gun could be held to his head every time a union leader wanted their own way. If we ever needed a further justification for why the reform agenda is needed to be fully implemented more than ever, it is this.

Now, it is still possible that the party could end up in power: for this reason no final decision is likely to be made on the donation now. A bet is being hedged until after the election.

But in the event of a Labour loss – in which case McCluskey last year threatened to disaffiliate Unite from the party and form his own – it is clear that there will be a huge political bunfight which could tear the whole labour movement apart. Indeed, the Sunday Times this weekend reported (£) that changing its constitution to allow it to fund other parties was already tabled for a Unite “rules conference” in July.

The alternative to carrying out the threat, of course, is to stay in and align with whichever leadership candidate is prepared to take Unite’s sizeable shilling. But the price to that future leadership hopeful will undoubtedly be high.

All in all, not exactly the actions of a loyal friend to the party. It is high time that party figures stopped defending him.

This post first published at Labour Uncut

UPDATE: The Mail reports that Unite has now made a £1m donation to Labour. So, call me old-fashioned, but what happened to the other £500k? I wonder.

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