Hearing about the debacle in Falkirk leads me to conclude both the party and the unions have a problem. The problem is not the one you would think if you read the press but one of credibility. Credibility of being recognised as leaders by those who want to be led: union members, party members and the public. My experience tells me that the best leaders in the union were those who come from the ‘shop floor’. But like the party, many leadership positions have been taken by back room boys – those in the machine rather than in the fight. So you get what you got in Falkirk; unions aping the party!
Was it though cock-up or conspiracy? What do I mean you wonder? Unite is accused of loading the constituency with members to out vote any opposition to the union favoured candidate, one of Tom Watson’s employees apparently, the archetypal back room boy done good! The party have stepped in with media allegations of take overs and manipulation of procedures. Sound familiar? Reminds us of the days of militant tendency doesn’t it? At least, that’s what certain figures would want us to believe. I suspect the truth is more anodyne with Unite rightly wanting to exert its influence but not wanting to take over the party in quite the way some right wingers would describe. Some may say I’m naive to the reality yet my thought is borne out of experience.
Don’t be surprised if some members of the party start to behave in exactly the way they have learnt and seen from others. How many times have the party imposed a candidate on a local party in the past? Too many times to count I suspect. This culture of central control is alive and well with senior party figures rolling behind favoured sons and daughters to endorse them for seats up and down the land. Some might say it gives more choice to the local party. Others may say it’s parachuting. Either way, it is happening for good or ill and it works. I would describe what has happened in Falkirk as being rather overt politicking. The other method, much favoured by senior party figures is more covert. It helps to reinforce the ‘type’ of MP we have too many off now – insiders, SPADS or hacks.
If what Unite were trying to do was to level the playing field, well who could blame them? It was obviously a bit clumsy but the intention can be well meant. The problem is this is manna from heaven for enemies of the unions and of the party. It is right that we need more working class MPs and the party should move to help make that happen instead of too often supporting the favoured few. That way, unions would be less inclined to feel the need to fight the system but work within it in a constructive way.
However, I believe because of the unions enemies within the party, this is hard to see happen any time soon. What I would urge all unions – do not to walk into a trap laid for it. The Unions must not be seen to be engaging in the old fights of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s but must be seen to be progressive and forward thinking. They must be seen as champions not just of their members but of the country as a whole. My experience of Trade Unions is one where they are both radical and pragmatic – seeking solutions but compromising to make progress for the greater good. For our party and our country, we cannot afford our enemies to caricature unions as out of touch with ordinary working men and women. I don’t believe they are at grass roots and overwhelmingly that evidence is clear. Their leaders should follow suit by not playing to the gallery and giving their enemies open goals.
Otherwise, the right will try to depict that the old left and militancy still exist as they once did. That then justifies all I’ve described about like for like off the shelf candidates for parliament which just undermines all that I believe needs to happen in our party and country. Perhaps then, the party might seriously look at other organisations within the party with agendas I’m not clear about such as Labour First. It’s interesting that they existed to fight Militant so still need an enemy. I’ve fought militancy all my life and won. I didn’t need Labour First to do it!