Tom Watson resignation exemplifies bitterness within Labour Party

London Letter: the Unite trade union’s campaign to choose Labour’s next generation of MPs is ruffling feathers

 Tom Watson, British MP who has resigned from his shadow cabinet role as Labour general election co-ordinator.  Photograph: PA

Tom Watson, British MP who has resigned from his shadow cabinet role as Labour general election co-ordinator. Photograph: PA


For the Labour Party, Falkirk in Scotland, which should be one of its safest, sleepy seats, has been a discontented place for nearly 20 years since the heady days that marked the return of a parliament to Holyrood for the first time in nearly 300 years.

Back then, Falkirk MP Dennis Canavan wanted to run in the Holyrood elections, but was blocked by the man who became Scotland’s first first minister, Donald Dewar, who preferred more biddable partners.

Expelled from Labour, Canavan was elected twice as an Independent to Holyrood by Falkirk voters. His House of Commons seat was taken by a Blairite, Eric Joyce, best known today for his repeated brushes with the law under the influence of drink.

Joyce was not wanted in Falkirk, but he was imposed by some of the same people who are now bitterly complaining that the Unite union is guilty of nefarious conduct by trying to stitch up the contest to choose Joyce’s replacement.

However, there is little doubt but that Unite did try to stitch up the race, leading many in Labour to fear that the union will do so again and again as candidates are selected for 2015.

In Falkirk, Unite wanted Karie Murphy, who runs the office of Labour’s election co-ordinator, the Rupert Murdoch-hating Tom Watson, and is a friend of vocal Unite’s general secretary, Len McCluskey.

The scale of the bitterness within Labour was illustrated yesterday afternoon by Watson’s resignation from the shadow cabinet and from his role preparing for the 2015 election.

Murphy did not seem likely to win in a race that included Greg Poynton, the UK political director for communications firm Blue State Digital, and a former local party official, Martin Murray.

But Murphy came back into the race when it was first decided that it should be an all-women shortlist, while Unite then went busily about adding to the 150 people in Falkirk who are members of the local organisation.

They were, perhaps, too active, since it appears that they found 150 more, including a few who have since claimed that their names were put on a list – and fees paid in their name – without their knowledge. Some names were allegedly gathered in a pub.

Scottish politics is not for the faint-hearted, with attempts to rig local constituency elections not unknown – but the mounting belief that Unite is embarked on 1980s Militant Tendency-style campaign of “entryism” has provoked a degree of panic.

The union is “throwing its weight around”, charged Peter Mandelson – a habit with which he is well acquainted, while other unions bristle privately about its flexing of muscles.

Three years ago, Unite played an influential role in the decision to make Ed Miliband the Labour Party leader. Before and since, it has contributed millions in contributions.

Unite cannot be accused of hiding its ambitions, judging by the public declarations last year of the head of its political committee, Dave Quayle. “The Labour Party in government did absolutely nothing for the collective rights of workers, and very little for our individual rights,” he complained. Just 9 per cent of Labour MPs have a working-class background, he said, arguing trade unionists should become more involved in Labour, while, crucially, the Labour leadership should take policy from party conferences, rather than simply noting and ignoring views.

Rejecting the “entryism” charge as absurd, Unite says it simply wants more influence.

Responding to concerns about Falkirk, Labour’s HQ launched an investigation, one that eventually barred members who joined the Falkirk branch after Joyce’s resignation in March from voting on who should be his successor.

If Unite is right that Labour has bred a generation of middle-class Labour apparatchiks, then it is equally true that McCluskey is set on trying to create a counter-culture of staunchly left-wing politicians.

So far, senior Unite figures have been told that half of the candidates it has backed have successfully come through selection conventions, while it hopes for good things in 40 others over coming months. Meanwhile, 150 Labour MPs receive funds directly from it. Remembering the 1970s and 1980s, former Labour minister Kim Howells said unions then routinely packed local branches: “It’s the politics of Labour, it’s always been there. That has got to change, that is absolutely crazy.” However, Unite’s actions are on a different scale to the 1970s, if only because so many unions have merged (many of them under the Unite umbrella) and so few private-sector workers are now union members.

Having a row with Unite does not do Miliband much harm publicly, if he shows who is boss, but the fact remains that McCluskey’s voice – amplified by the £7 million that Unite has given to Labour since the leadership election – means that he is difficult to ignore.