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.

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

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.