Unite and Labour in Falkirk: a legitimate stitch-up, or worse?
Just before 5pm on a Friday, with the focus of the parliamentary lobby on the G20 in St Petersburg or their third pint, Labour put out its statement that Karie Murphy, Stephen Deans and the union Unite have been exonerated of wrongdoing over the Falkirk parliamentary selection fiasco.
Immediately the warring old Labour Left and ‘Blairite’ factions resumed hostilities on Twitter over what it meant, with the former (Owen Jones leading the pack), demanding that all comments by anyone against Unite be withdrawn and apologised for, completely, immediately, unequivocally.
I’m a Labour member (a branch secretary indeed) and am no member of either faction. However I am far from convinced by this ‘exoneration’.
As far as I see it, the Falkirk affair is either an example of legitimate (or ‘institutionalised’) fixing by Unite, within the rules, or there has been a cover-up – and there are sources in Falkirk Labour who claim the latter.
As the New Statesman’s George Eaton wrote soon after the news came out (while also quoting Labour’s statement in full):
“It is no coincidence that the matter has been resolved two days before the start of the TUC conference and a few weeks before Labour's gathering in Brighton. Earlier this week, Unite's Scottish branch warned that it would boycott the Labour conference unless Murphy and Deans were reinstated.”
So, circumstantially, this action is rather convenient for Ed Miliband, Labour’s governing body the National Executive Committee (NEC) and Unite too.
Indeed in its statement announcing the decision, Labour said: “At each step Labour’s general secretary and NEC have acted quickly to protect the interest of the party.” Read that carefully – the interest of the party. The statement then admitted that key evidence had been withdrawn and further evidence provided by individuals concerned.
This statement doesn’t exactly deter further interest in the case, and it didn’t take long for the investigative journalist Michael Crick to reveal on Twitter, “Falkirk Labour source claims witnesses to wrongdoing were persuaded to withdraw their evidence under pressure”. This is crucial evidence (from Unite members remember, who claimed they had been enrolled without their knowledge) which led to Labour initially referring the case to police.
From the outside it could be that the whole case was either a misunderstanding or the blowing up of a local issue into a national scandal.
But that leaves us with certain facts. One of the most important is that Unite did attempt to fix the selection of Karie Murphy by Falkirk Constituency Labour Party by a mass enrolment of around a hundred of its members just before the selection started – an action which boosted membership 50% overnight. This could have been legitimate under Labour’s rules: unions are now allowed to pay Labour membership fees of members joining the party, so are able to control that process totally.
So either way, the immediate response from the BBC 1’s Six O’Clock News that “Unite has been cleared of trying to rig" Falkirk was incorrect, though no doubt convenient for both Labour and Unite. Unite has in fact been cleared of breaking the rules.
Given the party’s highly-developed and -convoluted apparatus of legitimised fixing which is constantly fiddled with by the NEC to suit whichever faction is dominant, sticking to the rules isn’t any guarantee of probity or ethics within Labour.
As I have argued here and elsewhere before, we could really do with some ethical standards in Labour: institutionalising ethics rather than fixing for one’s faction. The Right and Left factions generally assume the absolute worst of each other, and often they are right (or at least have been in the past).
However Labour people better keep a watch out for Michael Crick and others, who are going to be digging in to this story further. To me, this ‘exoneration’ doesn’t smell right. Certainly if there has been a cover-up, the scandal could get a whole lot worse for Labour and for Unite.
After all, as was said after Watergate, “it's not the crime, it's the cover up.”