Labour's opponents are trying to break the union link - we won't let them

Desperate attempts to present Falkirk as part of a pattern of union abuse are as predictable as they are risible.

Leaders of the Labour Party are never short of people to offer advice. The trick is in knowing which ones to listen to and, more importantly, which ones to trust. And a true test of the leader’s strength is their ability to assess advice from all quarters, coolly form their own opinion, and then pursue their course with courage and conviction. That calm deliberation and resolute strength have been the defining features of Ed Miliband’s campaign to win the Labour leadership, and of his time in the role. So it should come as no surprise that he has acted with sound judgement, and decisively, to deal with what appears to be a corrupted selection in Falkirk. The only surprise is that his opponents in the Tory party and the right-wing press should continue to be wrong-footed by the clarity and consistency of his actions.

Let’s be clear for a moment about what has happened in recent days, as it’s been hard to discern in the fevered and Delphic comment in these pages and elsewhere. It seems to me to be pretty straightforward. The selection procedure for a new Labour candidate to replace Eric Joyce appears to have been compromised by the abuse of a scheme designed to boost the numbers of trade unionists within the wider Labour membership. The party investigated, reported its findings to Ed Miliband, who acted upon them decisively:  suspending the local party and certain individuals; cancelling the ‘Union Join’ scheme, which was apparently subverted; and publicly informing Unite and Len McCluskey that Labour has no time for machine politics or malpractice, in Falkirk or elsewhere. Desperate attempts to present this aberration as the 'tip of an iceberg' or to misrepresent various trade unions’ legitimate and welcome efforts to engage their members in political debate, or to portray Ed as weak or in thrall to the unions are as predictable as they are risible. 

Those are the facts. But unfortunately they don’t suit opponents seeking to undermine Ed Miliband and the Labour Party he leads. On left and right (though the distinction often seems moot), in and out of the shadows, from Lynton Crosby to Dan Hodges, an unholy alliance is, of course, looking to destabilise the Labour movement, and to drive wedges between working people and their representatives in the trade unions and the party. For our opponents the motivation is clear: to defeat Labour in 2015, a task made far simpler by creating rifts and divisions in a movement that has been unified and united under Ed Miliband. And the ultimate prize, of course, is breaking the link between Labour and the trade unions that founded our party.

Such a fracture, however spun as modernising or mature, would weaken our party immeasurably and, more importantly, would weaken the means by which the people of Britain might hold to account the vested interests and corporate power which long ago bought the loyalty of David Cameron’s Conservatives. And that is why the Falkirk selection might have precipitated a crisis for Labour, had Ed not acted so quickly to address the specific incidence of malpractice uncovered there, or were there any evidence that trade unions were exercising undue influence over Labour policy elsewhere.

The uncomfortable truth for Labour’s opponents, however, is that there is no evidence of such malign influence outside the overheated imagination of Daily Mail journalists and Lynton Crosby’s PMQs script. Unite the union – my union, for the record – doesn’t agree with all of Labour’s policy prescriptions for Britain, and nor are all Unite members supporters of our party. Some will vote Tory, others might have once voted for the Lib Dems. And Labour candidates throughout Britain are routinely and properly elected by democratic, One Member, One Vote procedures - run and determined by local members, largely untouched by local or national union influence. Unfortunately, the reality is that local union members are invariably no more involved in or inspired by modern politics than the rest of the public. Indeed, if our unions were to catalyse greater engagement, British politics, on left and right, would be all the richer for it.

But, of course, those deeper issues of how we reignite passion in our politics and faith in our ability to build a more equitable economy doesn’t sell papers or serve Tory propaganda. Better to stick to tired clichés about Labour leaders and the union barons, exhumed from the cuttings archives and the Tebbit playbook circa 1982. Ed Miliband and the Labour leadership will not be deflected by such attacks, nor, as his actions have demonstrated, will he put up with any corruption of the democratic processes of the Labour Party. But neither will we allow any isolated incident to erode the historic strength of our party as part of a wider movement representing working people, or our determination to work alongside our trade union colleagues to defeat this Tory-led coalition and deliver a Britain worthy of its people.

Ed Miliband attends the launch of mental health charity MindFull at BAFTA headquarters earlier today. Photograph: Getty Images.

Owen Smith is a Labour leadership candidate and MP for Pontypridd. 

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder