MURKY hardly begins to describe it. Barely had the dust begun to settle on the Falkirk Labour candidate selection imbroglio than a dossier of e-mails has come to light suggesting that the Unite trade union worked to undermine an enquiry into vote-rigging.
This latest disclosure propels this unsavoury affair back into the headlines – and straight into the lap of Labour leader Ed Miliband.
The matter might be considered a little local difficulty but for the seriousness of the implication, not only an alleged attempt to interfere in the affairs of a constituency party to secure the nomination of a Unite-favoured parliamentary candidate, but also a subsequent alleged attempt by the union to cover up the scandal by pressurising witnesses into withdrawing their statements.
What gives all this wider resonance is that the Unite union official who played a key role in the claimed cover-up was Steve Deans, the chairman of the constituency Labour Party who happens also to be the Unite union’s convenor at the Grangemouth petrochemical plant. This was brought to the brink of closure last week after the Unite union persuaded employees to vote against a pay and pensions salvation plan.
The sheaf of e-mails – said to number around 1,000 – is said to shed new light on concerns by the Grangemouth management over the time and resources that Mr Deans was employing on non-plant-related business. But this revelation – uncomfortable enough as it is for Unite – pales before the content of the e-mails which are said to implicate the union in a concerted effort to get the original complainants to withdraw their statements.
It was in the light of these withdrawals that an investigation by the police and a Labour Party inquiry ordered by Mr Miliband were suspended last month and charges against Mr Deans dropped. At the heart of the latest disclosures is said to be the draft of a retraction letter written by Unite officials and approved by Mr Deans, which the complainants were requested to sign.
The e-mails have now been handed to the police and publication of their contents cannot but make most uncomfortable reading for the leader of the Labour Party. The party’s Scottish leader Johann Lamont has called for Mr Miliband to re-open the inquiry. She is quite right to do so. It is in the party’s strongest interests to have this matter, and the new claims, investigated fully to the satisfaction of the leadership. This lingering whiff of scandal cannot be allowed to persist. A renewed inquiry must get to the heart of this matter if faith is to be restored, not only in Falkirk Labour but in the standing and credibility of the party generally lest it be seen as effectively under the control of a union that can fix candidate selection with impunity.
A full, robust and thorough inquiry must either see these allegations credibly refuted or those involved brought to account.
Energy pricing policy requires clarity
With every announcement of price increases, the giant energy companies have drawn ever louder public fury. They say they compete. But why do the extent and timing of these increases come to look ever more like the behaviour of a cartel? Company chiefs are to appear before the Commons Select Committee this week. They will need more than woolly pullovers to protect them.
The UK operations of the energy utilities do not, on the whole, enjoy fat operating margins. They are also effectively required to be tax collectors on the government’s behalf. And they are not immune from cost pressures on world markets. But what is particularly worrying is that pricing policy now appears quite disconnected from the ability of many consumers to pay, and we have little choice other than to accept.
Government policy on the way it finances renewables and energy efficiency measures has much to answer for here, and it too bears heavy responsibility. But the energy companies have done a poor job in explaining the reasons for these price rises and their timing.
It should not be left to hapless public relations staffers mouthing platitudes about regrettable increases. Chief executives should come forward with clear and convincing explanations. Price rises that are a multiple of the rate of inflation need to be far better set out.
In the meantime, consumers need to be alert to ensure that they are getting the best possible deal, particularly on contracts where the amount is fixed each month, and to ensure that they are not over-paying. The present system of over-loaded energy bills is far from satisfactory and needs reform. But we can help ourselves by constant vigilance.