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.

Getty Images.
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How the shadow cabinet forced Jeremy Corbyn not to change Labour policy on Syria air strikes

Frontbenchers made it clear that they "would not leave the room" until the leader backed down. 

Jeremy Corbyn had been forced to back down once before the start of today's shadow cabinet meeting on Syria, offering Labour MPs a free vote on air strikes against Isis. By the end of the two-hour gathering, he had backed down twice.

At the start of the meeting, Corbyn's office briefed the Guardian that while a free would be held, party policy would be changed to oppose military action - an attempt to claim partial victory. But shadow cabinet members, led by Andy Burnham, argued that this was "unacceptable" and an attempt to divide MPs from members. Burnham, who is not persuaded by the case for air strikes, warned that colleagues who voted against the party's proposed position would become targets for abuse, undermining the principle of a free vote.

Jon Ashworth, the shadow minister without portfolio and NEC member, said that Labour's policy remained the motion passed by this year's conference, which was open to competing interpretations (though most believe the tests it set for military action have been met). Party policy could not be changed without going through a similarly formal process, he argued. In advance of the meeting, Labour released a poll of members (based on an "initial sample" of 1,900) showing that 75 per cent opposed intervention. 

When Corbyn's team suggested that the issue be resolved after the meeting, those present made it clear that they "would not leave the room" until the Labour leader had backed down. By the end, only Corbyn allies Diane Abbott and Jon Trickett argued that party policy should be changed to oppose military action. John McDonnell, who has long argued for a free vote, took a more "conciliatory" approach, I'm told. It was when Hilary Benn said that he would be prepared to speak from the backbenches in the Syria debate, in order to avoid opposing party policy, that Corbyn realised he would have to give way. The Labour leader and the shadow foreign secretary will now advocate opposing positions from the frontbench when MPs meet, with Corbyn opening and Benn closing. 

The meeting had begun with members, including some who reject military action, complaining about the "discorteous" and "deplorable" manner in which the issue had been handled. As I reported last week, there was outrage when Corbyn wrote to MPs opposing air strikes without first informing the shadow cabinet (I'm told that my account of that meeting was also raised). There was anger today when, at 2:07pm, seven minutes after the meeting began, some members received an update on their phones from the Guardian revealing that a free vote would be held but that party policy would be changed to oppose military action. This "farcical moment", in the words of one present (Corbyn is said to have been unaware of the briefing), only hardened shadow cabinet members' resolve to force their leader to back down - and he did. 

In a statement released following the meeting, a Corbyn spokesperson confirmed that a free vote would be held but made no reference to party policy: 

"Today's Shadow Cabinet agreed to back Jeremy Corbyn's recommendation of a free vote on the Government's proposal to authorise UK bombing in Syria.   

"The Shadow Cabinet decided to support the call for David Cameron to step back from the rush to war and hold a full two day debate in the House of Commons on such a crucial national decision.  

"Shadow Cabinet members agreed to call David Cameron to account on the unanswered questions raised by his case for bombing: including how it would accelerate a negotiated settlement of the Syrian civil war; what ground troops would take territory evacuated by ISIS; military co-ordination and strategy; the refugee crisis and the imperative to cut-off of supplies to ISIS."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.