Labour’s battle with Unite over Falkirk is a sign of weakness AND strength

8:25 am - July 5th 2013

by Sunny Hundal    

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Let me start with a short story. In 2007 the constituency of Ealing-Southall had a by-election after the sitting MP died. One of the leading contenders was Sonika Nirwal – the first Asian woman to be elected leader of a Labour group (in Ealing). She would have been a breath of fresh air and everyone expected an All-Women-Shortlist to be drawn up. But Ms Nirwal didn’t get it. She didn’t even make the shortlist. The AWS plan was abruptly discarded and only two men made the shortlist: veteran councillor Virendra Sharma and an unknown newcomer. It was obvious who would win.

There are countless such stories across the Labour party. They aren’t new and they aren’t unexpected. As Hopi Sen points out: “The system can be manipulated, so it is manipulated.” Unite’s mistake in Falkirk was to get caught trying to manipulate the system.

So here are some thoughts on this internal battle.

It could escalate
The argument over selection mistakes in Falkirk is merely a proxy battle – both the Progress types and the Left of the party know this. It’s also one both sides are itching to fight, and could escalate unless Ed Miliband seeks to placate both sides not just Jim Murphy’s contingent. It is also utterly absurd for Labourites to say the rules need changing to prevent unions from ‘fixing selections’ – since ‘fixing’ is practiced widely. Change is needed but it cannot just target unions.

Labour still has a working class problem
Unite’s actions are justified for many activists on the left for one reason: working class candidates are badly under-represented across Labour. At least Unite is trying to address the problem, while the Labour leadership isn’t, they say. Unless it is rectified there will always be resentment over perceptions that middle-class candidates are able to stitch-up selections while working class candidates aren’t. Many point out that Unite have the right to pursue their interests in the same way Progress do, but with added legitimacy.

It is a sign of strength…
…that Labour is willing to stand up to its biggest donor and tell them to stop interfering so blatantly. The Tories don’t have the guts to stand up to the City or big business. And to an extent Ed Miliband is right to be angry since the Labour Party and Unite are separate entitities, not joined at the hip.

But it is a sign of weakness…
…that Labour capitulates so easily to the right-wing press over a minor beltway story. Take another example: twice a year Ed Miliband’s office hosts a reception for the political press. Some left-wing bloggers (including myself) are invited too. But for some unexplicable reason they also invite Paul Staines (aka Guido Fawkes) and Harry Cole even though there is absolutely no benefit in doing so. Several journalists always point out that the Tories don’t even bother with the New Statesman, let alone hostile bloggers. Whatever the Labour leadership say, to everyone it looks like a sign of weakness they feel the need to invite mortal enemies, and feeds into the view that they are always worried about what the rightwing press.

Fighting the battle of the 80s
It feels like many of those stoking up fears about unions after Falkirk are still living the battles of the 80s against Militant. Of course Falkirk was nothing like that. In fact, there are far more instances of irregularities with Asian voters in areas such as Birmingham and parts of London. Are they going to ban Asians from standing or voting for Labour? Of course not. The point is that this controversy is being hyped up by people who either have an agenda against the unions or are fighting battles of the past.

The full report needs to be published – otherwise it just looks like Labour is pursuing a vendetta against Unite.

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About the author
Sunny Hundal is editor of LC. Also: on Twitter, at Pickled Politics and Guardian CIF.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Labour party ,The Left ,Trade Unions ,Westminster

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Reader comments

Which City bank or large business is signing up and paying the subs of Tory party members in order to influence candidate selections?

Now that would be a story!

As far as large parts of the media are concerned, expecting a Labour party leader to smack down the unions/the left/some sacred cow or other is taken be a rite of passage or proof of his (or her) ‘leadership’. Blair, of course, turned this from a tactic (see Clause 4) to a principle and then expected everyone in the party to admire him for it.

For those same parts of the media this isn’t a ‘Westminster Village’ story (please don’t use the Americanism ‘Beltway’, Sunny: you’re not working for Obama now), it’s the defining issue of our time (i.e. a chance to stick it to whoever they don’t like, whether it’s EdM or the unions or perhaps both). And that’s just on the Labour side.


‘50% of Tory funds come from the City’, Guardian, 9th February, 2011.

Probably not given to influence the selection of individual candidates but certainly government policy. In other words, it’s just a rose by any other name.

4. John Ruddy

They dont pay the subs of party members, but it is known that some Tory donors and supporters have given senior employees paid leaves of absence to campaign to be selected, and have even donated to their campaigns.

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