Labour and Unite accuse the Tories of "wasting police time" - and they're right

Tory MP Bob Neill's letter to the Metropolitan Police contains no evidence that the law may have been broken in seats other than Falkirk.

In an attempt to challenge Labour's assertion that the alleged abuses in Falkirk were a one-off, Conservative MP and party vice chairman Bob Neill has written to Metropolitan Police Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe asking him to investigate the selections in Ilford North and Lewisham Deptford.

In the case of the former, he writes: "In Ilford North, it has been reported that Unite were offering their members free Labour Party membership in exchange for attending a meeting with General Secretary Len McCluskey. Given that this constituency appears on a Unite target list along with Falkirk, I believe that the circumstances of this membership recruitment merit investigation."

He adds: "a London Labour activist Mandy Richards has alleged that Unite are ‘bankrolling’ a number of ‘orchestrated’ campaigns, and she singles out Lewisham Deptford for special attention. Again, given that this constituency appears on Unite’s secret list I am deeply concerned that Falkirk-style abuses may also have taken place."

In neither case is there any evidence that illegal activity has taken place. Offering members free Labour membership in return for meeting Len McCluskey is not against the law and nor is "bankrolling" or "orchestrating" campaigns.

Quite rightly, then, both Labour and Unite have responded by accusing the Tories of "wasting police time". A Labour spokesman said: "This is a silly political stunt. We have no evidence of possible criminal behaviour anywhere outside Falkirk. If Bob Neill has, he should produce it. If he has not, he should stop wasting police time."

A Unite spokesman said: "The Conservatives are wasting police time and trying to engage the police in a disgraceful political witch hunt. We strenuously reject any suggestion of criminality or that we have broken Labour party rules.

"Using the police to score political points and diverting their attentions away from making our communities safer is obscene.
 
"The Tories’ smear tactics are designed to scare ordinary people away from engaging in politics and ensure it becomes the preserve of an Eton educated elite."
 
CCHQ has responded by noting that Unite has not accused Ed Miliband of "wasting police time" in the case of Falkirk, asking whether this is "an acceptance of illegality". In that constituency, Unite is accused of signing up members to Labour without their knowledge or consent, an allegation that the Tories are notably unable to repeat in the case of Ilford North and Lewisham Deptford.
 
Unite general secretary Len McCluskey. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.