With new revelations in the Falkirk scandal, could Ed Miliband’s bid to enter Downing Street become irreparably damaged?
IF THERE is one word Labour figures most dislike hearing in the vicinity of their leader, the word is “weak”. That is why David Cameron’s mauling of the Labour leader during a particularly bruising episode of Prime Minister’s Questions in the high summer of July this year marked a low point for Ed Miliband.
The Tory benches were looking forward to the session, coming as it did as stories about alleged vote-rigging in Falkirk by the party’s biggest fund-raiser, Unite, were causing further embarrassment to Labour. And they were not to be disappointed. Cameron twisted the knife: Miliband was, in the Prime Minister’s words, “too weak to stand up to the Unite union and too weak to run Labour and certainly too weak to run the country”. Miliband retreated from the chamber to lick his many wounds. What he did next may, with hindsight, come to define his entire leadership and his chances of getting to No 10 Downing Street in 18 months’ time.
The Unite row had been bubbling away for months already; never quite coming to the boil, but causing enough hot air to be of serious concern. The seat had fallen vacant following the resignation from Labour of the Falkirk MP Eric Joyce. But candidates who were vying to replace him had raised complaints that a rival backed by Unite, Karie Murphy, had been benefiting from a highly dubious recruitment drive in the seat.
Suddenly, new Labour members were appearing by the bucket-load. The accusation was that they were being signed up for the express purpose of getting Murphy elected, mostly by the local party chairman Stevie Deans, who was also the Unite shop steward at the nearby Grangemouth works. By July, Labour had finally been forced to take matters into its own hands, seizing control of the constituency party. Tom Watson, the party’s deputy chairman and key Unite fixer, who was closely involved in the Falkirk affair, announced he would be resigning.
But in that first week of July, backed into a corner, Miliband – not for the first time – showed he was not averse to grasping back the initiative. On the Friday afternoon after his Wednesday Commons mauling, he invited the cameras into his office and, with Cameron’s “weak” tag threatening to hang around his neck, the Labour leader announced he was declaring war on his erstwhile Union ally, and its leader Len McCluskey. “We’re not going to have him defending this kind of machine politics,” Miliband declared, frowning grimly.
Both Murphy and Deans were being suspended from the party, and a full inquiry into the situation was under way. “It’s wrong, it’s bad practice, it’s malpractice and instead of defending that kind of thing, Len McCluskey should be condemning it. I will act without fear or favour when it comes to clarity and transparency. My message to Len McCluskey is clear – face up to your responsibilities and face up to what people in your union were doing.” The message to everyone at home watching was also clear – “I’m in charge around here. I can stand up to union bosses. I am categorically not weak.”
Certainly, the intervention did the trick in dispelling the “weak” image – as well as knocking back the persistent claims that Miliband was in the unions’ pocket. And this weekend, it is still not being bandied around by Miliband’s critics. Words which are, however, are things like “untrustworthy” and “dishonest” – and that is just by people on the Labour side of the fence. For the charge that took shape last week with new revelations about Falkirk is that at the time of that July interview, Miliband knew fine well about Unite’s mass recruitment campaign in Falkirk, having actually signed it off, only to then have the temerity to appear shocked and dismayed about the practice for the benefit of the cameras and his own reputation.
As more astute observers of the Labour leader have pointed out, one of Miliband’s key political qualities is his ruthlessness. But that ruthless? And so, the question runs, is a man like this fit to be Prime Minister?
The claims that Labour HQ in London knew about and aided Unite’s unorthodox recruitment campaign in Falkirk emerged in the latest of a tide of leaked emails last week. In one, a Unite official discusses with Murphy promises he had been given by Labour HQ in London that new members signed up by the union in Falkirk were being “processed”. “I was advised the week before Xmas that these had all been processed – advised by Jenny Smith [Ed Miliband’s former union adviser] and Scott Landon [chief of staff to Iain McNicol, Labour’s general secretary] – but it is for the party to confirm authority, not us.” Another email from Murphy to her Unite team noted that she had an agreement with McNicol on how best to organise the signing-up of new members. “I will personally collect their direct debit details once we have given them a reason to support the Labour party… this is what Lennie [McCluskey] agreed with the Labour party GS [McNicol].”
The evidence of the emails therefore appears to show that McNicol, the party’s most senior official, knew and had endorsed Unite’s “machine politics” tactics, in an apparent breach of Labour’s own rules, which declare such recruitment exercises “unacceptable”. Well-placed party sources say they believe the deal may have been agreed by McNicol and Watson, who are very close. However, it is also understood that Miliband’s office denied such a deal had taken place when concerns were first raised internally earlier this year. Unite also continue to point out that they have so far been found to have done nothing wrong. “Labour found we have not broken any rules and Police Scotland ruled that we did not break any laws,” a spokesman said.
But the key question now is: if such a deal was agreed, did Miliband know and approve it? If he did, his subsequent outrage in July would suddenly take on a very different hue. Party sources are split, saying it is possible that the deal could have been agreed with no reference to the party leader. Other party figures view it differently. Writing on the Labour Uncut website last week, editor Atul Hatwal declared: “The member of the leader’s office responsible for relations with the unions knew what Unite wanted to do, how they were going about it and signed-off on it. It strains credulity given the subsequent furore that Ed Miliband was not told about the agreement.”
The soon to be ex-MP for Falkirk Eric Joyce – who is bitterly critical now of Unite and the Labour leadership which expelled him from the party – argues that, had the bundle of new membership applications appeared in normal circumstances, Labour’s compliance unit would have knocked them back as being suspicious. But, he says, “it had changed from an administrative issue to a political one” – so they were rushed through.
Rolling forward to Miliband’s sudden attack on Unite in July, he adds: “My own view is that somebody like Blair or Kinnock or Brown explained to him what he needed to do over Falkirk but then, very quickly afterwards, he was given a very good reason not to follow through on that.” That very good reason was not just the potential loss of Unite support (and its huge financial backing), but also the prospect that an inquiry would end up inquiring into his own office. This is the reason for the retreat since, it is argued.
By early September, Labour announced it was dropping its internal inquiry into Unite’s activities in Falkirk, claiming written evidence presented by one of the new “members” had been withdrawn (a claim subsequently challenged). And despite the constant leaking of emails in recent weeks, Miliband continues to insist that a fresh inquiry is not required. The word from within Miliband’s office is that he and his advisers are hoping that, once a new Labour candidate is chosen in the next few weeks, the complex Falkirk story will simply die a natural death. “But this can’t be finessed,” adds Joyce. “I think the fundamental problem now is that he knows he looks like he is not telling the truth. The man who is saying he wants to become our next Prime Minister is saying things that are manifestly not true.”
Off the record, other MPs add that the hope in London that the issue will die a natural death is a vain one. “We’ve totally failed to lance the boil in Falkirk,” says one. “Cameron and the Tories are just going to keep bringing it up until we deal with it properly,” adds another. And given that Miliband’s own office is now implicated in the affair, there is pressure for the leader to bring in an independent figure to do the job themselves – Tony Blair’s former chief of staff Jonathan Powell is one suggestion. That pressure is believed to be coming also from officials within the party’s HQ who now feel that their own reputations are being sullied by the entire mess, and want some kind of closure.
Certainly the scandal will drag on for a while yet. The Falkirk party is due to have a general meeting next weekend, with – Joyce claims – genuine party members all demanding answers over what happened. And just to rub it in, the BBC TV’s flagship Question Time programme has been scheduled a week on Thursday for – you guessed it – Falkirk. Plenty of people in the party would now much prefer it if the F-word was removed from all conversation for the foreseeable future. More scrutiny of what went on both in the constituency and within Labour HQ is bound to be bad for Miliband – likely to show him up as either in hock to Unite, or as an untrustworthy plotter. But any hope he has that the little local difficulty in Scotland’s central belt is going to just disappear looks far from likely. «