LABOUR’S election co-ordinator Tom Watson was forced to quit yesterday and two party workers were suspended as the row over the Unite trade union’s alleged attempt to rig candidate selection in the Falkirk constituency claimed its first scalps.
In a day of fast-moving developments, Mr Watson resigned as Labour’s deputy chairman and left the shadow cabinet, saying that he was stepping aside to safeguard “the unity of the party”.
Hours later, party leader Ed Miliband announced he was suspending two members of the Falkirk party – constituency chairman Stephen Deans and Karie Murphy, who was Unite’s favoured candidate for the seat.
In a statement, Labour said that there were allegations that the pair may have been involved in a breach of Labour Party rules relating to “potential abuse of membership”.
Mr Miliband also announced he was scrapping a scheme allowing unions to recruit members and pay their subs.
The suspensions follow an internal party inquiry into allegations that Unite, Labour’s biggest financial backer, sought to “stitch up” the selection of a candidate to replace disgraced MP Eric Joyce in Falkirk by cramming the constituency party with 100 or more members whose subscriptions were paid by the union, some of them without their knowledge.
Mr Watson was under pressure due to his close links to Unite – he was once a flatmate of the union’s general secretary Len McCluskey – and Ms Murphy, who works as the MP’s office manager.
A senior Labour source said that Mr McCluskey would “obviously have to take some responsibility” for what had been done by the union he leads.
But the source insisted that there was no evidence to suggest membership irregularities in other constituencies, telling reporters: “There was a problem with a specific constituency and a specific union in that constituency – I think we have today resolved that.”
Mr McCluskey last night hit back at the claims and denounced the investigation into events in Falkirk as a “disgrace” which had smeared the union and its members, and meant he could place “no trust” in the administration of the Labour Party.
In a letter to Mr Miliband, Mr Watson revealed that he offered to resign on Tuesday, but was asked by the Labour leader to “reconsider”.
He wrote: “I’ve thought about it and still feel it is better for you and the future unity of the party that I go now.”
The West Bromwich East MP, best known for his campaigning in the phone hacking scandal, insisted that he remained a “loyal servant” of the Labour leader, praising him for his “Buddha-like qualities of patience, deep thought, compassion and resolve” and saying he could be an “outstanding prime minister”.
But he risked embarrassing the Labour leader further by calling for an internal report into the controversy to be published – something Mr Miliband has refused to do.
In his response, Mr Miliband praised Mr Watson’s work for the party but accepted that he was right to stand down.
“As I said to you when we spoke at lunchtime today, I do believe that it does now make sense, for you and for the party, for you to step down,” he said.
Mr Miliband announced he was ending the “Union Join” scheme, established in the Blair era, under which trade unions encouraged their members to join the party and were allowed to pay their subs for the first year.
A Labour spokesman said that it was now clear it was “a mistake” to have a scheme which left the party “open to attack from our opponents”.
Conservatives have capitalised on the Falkirk row, with David Cameron repeatedly goading Mr Miliband in the Commons yesterday over the influence allegedly wielded by Unite, which has donated more than £8 million to Labour since he became leader.
The Trade Union Reform Campaign – a pressure group backed by several Tory MPs – wrote to the trade union Certification Officer demanding an investigation into what it claimed was fraud in Falkirk.
The Labour leader had been under pressure to axe Mr Watson as deputy chairman and election co-ordinator because of his strong union links, and the fact that his assistant was a potential candidate in the constituency.
Last night, one Labour shadow minister said: “Nobody believes that Watson simply resigned. All the talk in the bars was that Ed [Miliband] has to take Unite on and this is part of that.”
Conservative Party chairman Grant Shapps described Mr Watson’s resignation as “a clear vote of no confidence in Ed Miliband’s weak leadership from the man he brought in to run his campaign”.
But he added: “This still doesn’t change the fact that Len McCluskey’s Unite union is taking over the Labour Party. Ed Miliband is not in control of his party.”
In his resignation letter, Mr Watson hit out at colleagues for briefing against him and suggested that some had never forgiven him for quitting government to force the departure of Tony Blair seven years ago.
“Yet it’s not the unattributed shadow cabinet briefings around the mess in Falkirk that has convinced me that the arrangement has run its course [though they don’t help],” he wrote.
“I believe that the report should be published – in full – and the whole truth told as soon as possible.”
Unite leader Mr McCluskey last night demanded a fresh inquiry by an independent third party. In a letter to Labour general secretary Iain McNicol, Mr McCluskey denounced the report as “a stitch-up designed to produce some evidence, however threadbare, to justify pre-determined decisions”.
He added: “Even on the basis of this flimsy report, it is clear that these decisions cannot be justified.”