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 web editor of the New Statesman.

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

Photo: Getty Images
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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.