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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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser