Labour and Unite: how The Times misled its readers

Of the 14 Labour constituency parties placed under "special measures", just one, Falkirk West, was due to concerns over activity by Unite.

As the row over Unite's alleged manipulation of the Labour selection process in Falkirk intensifies (Jim Murphy, one of the shadow cabinet ministers criticised by Len McCluskey in my recent interview with him, declared earlier that the union had "well and truly over-stepped the mark"), today's Times front page reports that "Labour has seized control of 14 of its constituency parties as a result of attempts to manipulate selections and exert unfair influence." The tense and accompanying headline ("Labour forced to step in as union takes over key seats") suggest that, in addition to Falkirk, Ed Miliband has been forced to place other seats under "special measures" due to illegitimate union activity. 

But as a Labour source told me earlier, that's not the case at all. Twelve of the 14 seats were placed under special measures before 2005 and in just one instance (Falkirk West) was this due to concerns over Unite. As the Times finally concedes on p.4 (after eight paragraphs), "Falkirk is the only constituency on the list, which has never previously been made public, connected to union malpractice". 

Unite has made no secret of its (entirely reasonable) desire to see its members selected as Labour candidates. As McCluskey told me, "Because we’re having some success, suddenly these people are crying foul. Well I’m delighted to read it. I’m delighted when Blair and everyone else intervenes because it demonstrates that we are having an impact and an influence and we’ll continue to do so."

The allegations surrounding Falkirk certainly deserve to be taken seriously (as they have been) but it's important not to suggest that union campaigning is, by definition, illegitimate, a distinction the Times's report entirely failed to make. 

And here, courtesy of Labour List, are the 14 CLPS currently under special measures. 

  • Bethnal Green and Bow
  • Poplar and Limehouse
  • Brentford & Isleworth
  • Ealing Southall
  • Falkirk West
  • Feltham & Heston
  • Oldham East and Saddleworth
  • Oldham West and Royton
  • Birmingham Hall Green
  • Birmingham Hodge Hill
  • Birmingham Ladywood
  • Birmingham Perry Barr
  • Warley
  • Slough

 

Unite general secretary Len McCluskey addresses delegates at the TUC's annual congress. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo:Getty
Show Hide image

Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

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