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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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.