Eric Joyce on Unite in Falkirk, life in the Westminster wilderness and "the whacking"

Caroline Crampton interviews Eric Joyce MP.

Eric Joyce has the look of a man who is enjoying life. It’s a state so rarely seen in an MP that when he cheerily greets me, in his crumpled T-shirt with a well-thumbed hardback under his arm, I panic that I’ve turned up for the wrong interview.

For over a year now, Joyce has been something of a stranger, a party-of-one, in the place where for more than a decade he was on the periphery of power. A former army major, he became a staunchly Blairite member of the Parliamentary Labour Party after his election in 2000, holding a number of junior posts. All of this changed in February 2012 with the incident he refers to throughout our chat as “the whacking”, when he is said to have shouted, “There are too many Tories in here,” before assaulting several fellow MPs and their guests in the Strangers’ Bar of the House of Commons. Since then, having resigned from the party and pledged to stand down at the next general election, he’s walked alone.

Now, as the process to select his successor in Falkirk has turned into a debate about the relationship between Labour and the unions, Joyce once more finds himself at the centre of events. The way he sees it, his constituency has become the site of a proxy war within left-of-centre politics. A larger battle between Unite, Britain’s biggest union, and the party leadership over Labour’s broad acceptance of the coalition’s austerity measures was being fought through the Falkirk selection process. As he puts it: “[Unite] has decided that the Labour Party isn’t sufficiently in its mode, so they’ve decided to change the Labour Party by means of putting in their own officials.”

Having said that, Joyce is not sure that the “Falkirk scandal”, as the media quickly named it, is as much of a problem for future relations between the union and the party as has been suggested. He’s not even sure that “scandal” is the right term. “A scandal is me whacking a few Tories in the bar, or more classically someone sleeping with a prostitute or a Russian . . . There’s a structural logic and a political logic to all of this.”

He believes the problem isn’t with trade unions in general, or even Unite in particular. “Unite can be relatively quickly fixed. I think it’s a very small number of personalities . . . It just seems like a very unsubtle charge at the Labour Party.”

At the heart of the problem is Unite’s general secretary, Len McCluskey, Joyce says; the strategy he has followed doesn’t make political sense.

“I don’t know if Len’s thick – maybe he’s thick. It might simply be there’s a wee cabal . . . But either way, I think McCluskey will have to back off completely and accept defeat or risk his position in the union.”

Given that it was the trade unions that carried Ed Miliband over the line in the Labour leadership election in 2010, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone in the political sphere who thinks that what has happened in Falkirk is a good thing for the party leader. Apart from Eric Joyce, that is, who suggests Miliband should just “turn on them”.

“Once he’s come through it, he’ll be more decisive,” Joyce assures me. Winking, he continues: “In that case it’s maybe – no, certainly a good thing that all this happened.”

Joyce’s blunt, optimistic honesty can be very persuasive, particularly when he talks about himself. Whatever happens in Falkirk, one thing is certain – he won’t be in Westminster come 2015. He accepts he’s “not fantastically suited” to the life of an MP.

“It’s the same with a lot of people who come into politics without any kind of political background . . . The things that are regarded as virtues [in Westminster] are the opposite from my experience in the army. It’s virtuous here to tell one person something and tell someone else slightly different. And if you don’t, it’s seen as a bit of a beginner’s mistake. Whereas in the army, that would make you a two-faced sod.”

Still, since “the whacking”, he finds himself at liberty to think and speak honestly (his Twitter feed is a mix of cute pictures of bunnies and ruminations on union politics).

Asked to expand on what happened that night in the bar, he says: “It was just like, fucking hell, a bit of a shocker.” There have been subsequent incidents, including another arrest after another altercation in a Commons bar in March, but no action has been taken.

“Everything I do is in the public eye, hence the things that get reported and nothing comes of them. From my point of view, infamy is like fame without the money.”

Despite this, he remains cheerful. “Life has been quite good. I’ve voted Labour, not that there was much voting going on. I’m happy in a relationship and all that stuff [his partner is the Sunday Times columnist India Knight]. Behaviourally, it was sort of a midlife crisis . . . But one has to just try and move on from these things.”

Does he have any regrets?

“If I was starting now, I’d be pretty optimistic about my political career, because I’ve learned enough. But now? It’s screwed.”

The briefest glance at his record confirms this analysis – politics has moved on and left him behind.

As he escorts me from his office, happily chatting about plans for the weekend with an air of relaxed contentment, I can’t help but think that if this is what life in the political wilderness is like, it doesn’t look half bad.

Eric Joyce. Photograph: Getty Images

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 15 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Machiavelli

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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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