IT BEGAN with an alleged headbutt. Eighteen months down the line, it is handing Ed Miliband the biggest headache of his three years as party leader.
A little local difficulty in Falkirk has morphed into a far-reaching tale of dirty tricks and a nationwide crisis. It is, says one supportive MP, the first time since Miliband came to power that his leadership is genuinely under threat.
The road to this weekend’s Westminster farce began in the Strangers’ Bar in the Houses of Parliament last February. Eric Joyce, a former army major, was among MPs drinking after work. According to witnesses, he suddenly “flipped”, yelling that there were “too many f***ing Tories in here”, before setting on Conservative MP Stuart Andrew. A night in Belgravia Police Station followed. Pleading guilty a month later, he resigned from the party – and so began the race to succeed him.
Joyce’s spectacular fall from grace was in keeping with Labour’s inglorious recent record in the Falkirk seat. In 1999, the former Labour MP for the town, Dennis Canavan, wanted to transfer to Holyrood, but his candidature was blocked by the party. He resigned from the party and won handsomely as an independent. The choice of the Blairite Joyce as Canavan’s replacement was itself dogged by recriminations, but the events of the past few months have outdone everything that has gone on in the past.
While the details of candidate selection might appear arcane and parochial, they have embroiled Miliband and the party’s largest union backer, Unite, in a Scottish police investigation. More than that, the scandal has tapped deep into the battle for Labour’s soul and scratched further at the wounds left behind from the party’s long period in power.
The full details remain hidden – contained in a report compiled by the party over recent weeks as it has sought to get to grips with what was going on in the constituency. However, Miliband confirmed on Friday that the investigation had found evidence that people in the central Scottish town were being recruited to become Labour party members – and potential backers for Joyce’s replacement – without being asked. Unite, and its leader Len McCluskey, are in the firing line.
“We had members being signed up without their knowledge, bad practice, malpractice and frankly instead of defending that kind of thing Len McCluskey should be condemning it,” declared Miliband on Friday.
The allegation is that the union paid for staff to become card-carrying Labour members so that they would line up behind the candidacy of Karie Murphy, the union’s preferred candidate – who also just happens to be a staff member for West Bromwich MP and close Miliband ally Tom Watson. She is also said to be close to McCluskey.
Unite has consistently argued it did nothing wrong – pointing to long-established rules which allow unions to help recruit party members by paying their subscriptions (something Miliband outlawed last week). But other sharp practice has come to light too: the union paid for a survey designed to show support for an all-woman shortlist. This move would have ruled out the candidacy of Murphy’s main rival for the candidacy, Gregor Poynton, the husband of MP Gemma Doyle, who is on the front bench team of the Blairite shadow defence secretary Jim Murphy (no relation). Poynton was named in reports last week that efforts were being made to buy up supporters for him as well, and that Unite was merely copying his camp’s attempts to sign up recruits. However, Labour figures subsequently insisted this was not the case (and unlike Karie Murphy and Falkirk party chairman Stephen Deans, Poynton was not suspended).
It may all seem to be a little local difficulty. But Unite’s efforts in Falkirk are part of a nationwide strategy, launched in 2012, to “reclaim” the Labour Party from what it described as the “old thinking and neo-liberalism” of the Blairite movement which had successfully run the party over its long period in office in the 1990s and 2000s. A leaked strategy paper from 2012 revealed that the union was going to try to “promote a new generation of Unite activists towards public office” in order to ensure that candidates who backed the union got into parliament. Falkirk was just one seat where this grassroots effort was being attempted. In the union’s sights is the remaining rump of the New Labour revolution loosely gathered around the “Progress” movement, headed by figures such as Lord Adonis and shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg.
The Falkirk episode revealed that this struggle for supremacy within the party remains just as intense as ever. Jim Murphy put his head above the parapet, accusing Unite of “bullying” its way into winning the candidacy in Falkirk. On the other side, Watson – whose role in the Falkirk episode is not thought to have been extensive – muttered darkly about how he was being deliberately drawn into the affair by shadow cabinet rivals keen to bring him down. Resigning on Thursday afternoon, he alluded to the suggestion that his downfall was due to old scores being settled.
“There are people who still haven’t forgiven me for resigning in 2006,” he declared – a reference to his key role seven years ago in orchestrating the end of Tony Blair’s premiership and Gordon Brown’s succession to No 10. The bad blood may now continue to flow, say some. Those who know the highly influential Watson say it would be foolish in the extreme to assume he will now return quietly to a backbench role. “You should never underestimate Tom,” said one MP. Some party figures were last week already speculating that there will be pressure on Miliband to balance Watson’s departure with a sacrifice on the right – with Murphy deemed by some to be the most likely offering.
It has all the makings of a Labour civil war to rival the internecine battles of the 1980s. The question is now whether Miliband can do anything to bring peace. Having famously won the leadership by the tiniest of margins over his brother David through the support of the unions, which make up a third of the party’s electoral college, he appears to be in a lose-lose situation. Track leftwards and – as was shown last week – he leaves himself open to brutal attacks from David Cameron that he is McCluskey’s puppet. Track back to the centre, and he ends up enraging the very wing of the party that elected him on a promise in the first place.
Initially, Miliband seems to have chosen the latter course. The taunts of Cameron at Prime Minister’s Questions still in his ears, he came down hard on Friday, bringing in the police and attacking the behaviour of campaigners in the seat. It prompted the kind of angry response from McCluskey that will have had the Labour leader’s spin doctors purring – he accused Labour of taking part in “anti-union Tory hysteria”. By Friday night, leading party figures who have long insisted that Miliband keep away from a lurch to the left were satisfied that Miliband had made the right choice. Former Chancellor Alistair Darling declared: “You can’t win [elections] other than being on the centre-ground. That is where the Labour Party needs to be firmly camped. It is where British and Scottish public opinion is firmly based. I think Ed is absolutely right and he’s made it very, very clear that he is his own man.”
But that is only 24 hours that Miliband has successfully negotiated. Frenzied efforts are ongoing this weekend to find a list of suitable candidates who can go forward to be chosen by local party members in Falkirk. Any suggestion that a Unite-linked figure is being given a run will be “hugely damaging” to Miliband, some MPs believe. And beyond that hurdle, Miliband now has to try to find a way through the mess that has been exposed in Falkirk. Blairite figures argue that Miliband should use the current crisis to completely reconfigure the party’s relationship with the unions and introduce a straight one-member-one-vote system. Unite and the other unions, however, can be expected to resist any further attempt to reduce their power base. One centrist MP says: “I fear he will come up with some kind of Kinnockian compromise. I don’t think it will fly unfortunately. You have to say that his leadership is under threat for probably the first time since he became leader.”
A bigger fear for Miliband is that Falkirk turns out to be just the start. Already, other examples of sharp practice are being raised. They include claims by one member in Bristol, Razvan Constantinescu, who said his own attempt to become a Labour candidate had been sabotaged so a female Unite-backed rival could get a clear run. “It was engineered so there was an all-woman shortlist and it so happened the Unite candidate was a woman. Finally to avoid embarrassing her I was not even allowed on the shortlist,” Constantinescu said. “I fully respect the role of trade unions,” he added. “However, we should make sure there is a correct balance and we don’t end up with the tail wagging the dog.”
Less than two years before he goes to the country, it is not the kind of local difficulty that Miliband would have wanted exposed to public view. The task, ironically, is for the party to unite. «