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. 

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.