Comment: Labour Falkirk cynicism the real scandal

Dennis Canavan's 1999 falling out with Labour was rewarded with a healthy Holyrood majority. Picture: Adam Elder
Dennis Canavan's 1999 falling out with Labour was rewarded with a healthy Holyrood majority. Picture: Adam Elder
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The party-versus-union row in Falkirk goes to show how power brokers are disconnected from the voters, writes Lesley Riddoch

Poor old Falkirk. What have faithful Labour voters done to deserve their serial mistreatment by the People’s Party and how much longer will they wear it?

The debacle over Falkirk’s candidate selection has been styled as a power battle between Ed Miliband and Len McCluskey for the soul of the Labour Party. The suggestion is that neither Miliband nor the surprisingly silent Scottish leader Johann Lamont can claim control of Labour since both depend heavily on union support for their own election victories. It’s a valid concern but anti-union hysteria always plays badly north of the Border. The portrayal of the Unite leader as simultaneously a latter-day Arthur Scargill and a Svengali-like power behind the throne doesn’t quite stack up. If McCluskey does run the show, why not flex his muscles instead of making minions work hard to “join” hundreds of union members to “stitch up” selection contests as the union is accused of having done in Falkirk and was allegedly preparing to do in Paisley?

The answer seems to be that it was easier to pay for new members than persuade old ones. And that tired, tawdry reality informs the only really important battle going on – the battle facing voters who want to believe they are not merely cannon fodder in the eyes of Labour and mega-unions like Unite. A near-automatic tendency towards control, secrecy and brokerage is one of the main reasons supporters have drifted from unions and the Labour Party. But evidently, despite election defeats, internal reviews, new structures and new leaders, old instincts remain because vital debates about power, control and democracy are still being conducted behind closed doors with results presented as fait-accompli to sheep-like local voters.

Labour’s cynicism is the real scandal of Falkirk and it didn’t start last week or even last year (with Eric Joyce) but in 1999 when Dennis Canavan MP – long regarded as too left-wing and “off-message” by Blairites – was rejected as a Holyrood candidate by the party hierarchy. Canavan – supported by 97 per cent of local Labour members – stood as an independent and won the biggest majority of any MSP in the first Holyrood elections and more recently took that hard-won moral authority with him to front the Yes campaign.

Despite this snub to local sentiment, Labour lived to fight again in Falkirk with its new Westminster candidate -- former squaddie Eric Joyce. He was seen as a bold figure with a bright future but by 2007 Joyce topped the MPs expenses league table with cumulative claims of more than £1 million. He remained defiant about his “liberal” use of taxpayer’s cash – damaging his prospects of a career within the party but not his ability to remain the official Labour candidate in 2010. After last year’s drunken brawl in the Commons, Joyce was fined £3,000, given a weekend curfew, banned from bars for three months and fined a further £600 for cutting off his security tag.

Dithering Labour did finally expel him from the party. But despite much talk about giving voters the right to recall MPs, Westminster has given Falkirk voters no option but to thole Joyce till he chooses to go at the next election when they may also have to thole watching him get a sizeable “golden goodbye”.

The Commons Resettlement Grant helps with “costs of adjusting to non-parliamentary life” if the applicant “ceases to be an MP at a general election”. That’s why Eric is hanging on. The amount varies between 50 and 100 per cent of salary and the first £30,000 is tax free. There is also up to £42,000 to wind up staff contracts and a final-salary pension scheme. All the main Westminster parties have suggested the resettlement scheme needs reform – but again nothing has happened. Ironically, the only change MPs have made is an independent commission on MPs’ pay whose rumoured proposal to raise salaries to £70,000 may backfire later this week.

There is one fly in the ointment for Joyce, though. The resettlement grant is discretionary. So “fair play” for Falkirk’s MP will finally be decided at an indeterminate time by indeterminate people in their own indeterminate way. That counts for democracy in the UK. Indeed, high-handed, secretive decision-making by the very few has been a long-running theme in Falkirk.

There were apparently just 200 members of the local Labour Party when Joyce announced his decision to quit – 200 folk to choose the (probable) next MP for tens of thousands of people over (perhaps) the next decade. Once again, you might think such tiny numbers would allow Unite to win support for its candidate by argument and to campaign openly for its cause – a Labour Party populated not by researchers and academics but by “working class” MPs.

The fact that such credentials are hard to discern in the Falkirk battle – putative candidate Karie Murphy worked in an MP’s office and McCluskey earns £122,000 – has clouded a very real issue. As the Jimmy Reid Foundation has demonstrated, 70 per cent of Scots live on less than £24,000 but only 3 per cent of “influencers” do.

So can parliamentarians really represent ordinary people? It’s an important debate – but one the public cannot have if unions such as Unite opt to “fix” it privately.

If Labour really seeks to govern it must credit the public with intelligence and involve, not exclude, voters from debates.

In the end, the Falkirk shenanigans will probably be deemed legal and above board. But democratic? Some European proportional voting systems operate “open lists” to get round the thorny problem of local party selectorates offering voters a choice of candidates from each party. In “high participation” electorates such as Iceland, “write-in” candidates also win – social obligation rather than parliamentary law encouraging most to accept their new jobs.

But in Britain, first-past-the-post Westminster voting, low turnout, low levels of political participation and even lower levels of candidate recognition in the over-sized “local” realm combine to block creative, democratic solutions.

If Labour continues to put self-interest ahead of public interest and fails to end this vicious circle of “backroom” manipulation and local disempowerment, it will pay the price. Maybe in 2014 or 2015, maybe sooner – maybe later.

That at least is in the gift of Falkirk voters.