Many will pick up their Sunday paper this morning and scratch their heads, wondering why Labour’s inability to select a candidate in Falkirk for a UK election some two years away is front page news. They will frown and dismiss the story as the political class chattering to itself as usual, and turn to more pertinent concerns. Such as Andy Murray’s date with Wimbledon destiny (part two).
They’d be right, but they’d also be wrong.
This imbroglio is more than a little local difficulty, for Falkirk displays in all its ugliness, the canker at the heart of the Labour party.
Indeed, internal selection is an issue for all the parties. Most might have introduced one member, one vote for candidate selection and ranking, but these electorates can still be terrifyingly tiny, which makes them powerful fiefdoms to be fought over and controlled. The solution, as Simon Pia, a former Scottish Labour spin doctor, suggested this week (as many others have before him) is for local primaries to be run for candidate selection, not just by Labour, but by all parties’.
And as Andrew Rawnsley points out in his Observer column, Ed Miliband could seize the opportunity arising from this crisis to push through sweeping reform in his party. He has already failed the test. In the same paper, Labour’s leader talks of “mending not ending” the relationship with trades unions. Like many of his peers, he owes his elevated status in politics to those same unions and he is not of a mind to kill the geese that lay the golden eggs.
Yet, some of us have been arguing for decades that these ties, for all their historical significance, need to be broken. I was chortled at by the late and much missed Bill Spiers in 1999 when daring to suggest that the STUC and its members might want to lead that charge. The dawn of devolution in Scotland, I reckoned, was the perfect time for trade unions in Scotland to think about fashioning a new relationship with Labour and indeed, other parties, one which might serve their members rather better than the head lock Labour had them in. My argument was – and still is – that trade unions shouldn’t have any affiliation with any of the parties, leaving them free to truly represent their members’ interests and align with any party at any time which offered a fair deal for working people. And if people felt that unions were only working for their members, then more might be inclined to join.
But even though Miliband is offering a wimp solution to this current crisis, unions like Unite will fight any changes. Because it will mean losing the concentration of fiscal and voting power at the top of their structural pyramids and those that enjoy it rather like it that way. As Falkirk shows, it’s not just the big contests for leadership positions that unions can boss, but also the much smaller ones.
Miliband suggests that events in Falkirk “have betrayed the values of our party. The practices we have seen should be unacceptable in any political party. But they are certainly unacceptable in the Labour party.” What he fails to point out is that these practices have been going on for years: they’ve only become unacceptable now they’ve been found out in a very public and embarrassing way. Indeed, he claims that these events are “unrepresentative of what is happening in Labour parties“.
That hostage to fortune ignores suggestions that Unite was also gearing up to secure the downfall of Douglas Alexander. That would have been a spectacularly stupid piece of fratricide, but had the parliamentary boundary review continued and Alexander found himself pitted against Jim Sheridan for a single Paisley berth, it might well have come to pass. Who cares whether the Labour party needs MPs like Alexander, he isn’t one of Unite’s and therefore, would have been fair game in its strategy of influencing local contests.
And the idea that this is a peculiarly Westminster problem, which doesn’t affect Labour’s selections for Holyrood, is also nonsense. Anyone remember Janis Hughes? She was rumoured to have secured a second term as Rutherglen’s MSP purely on the votes of the mini-block union vote in her constituency. The story goes that the members of the party, every single one of them voted for someone else to be their candidate, only to have the affiliated union votes in the constituency back her.
Which only serves to underline why Johann Lamont’s silence on Falkirk is both futile and inane. If she thinks she can get away with keeping out of it, she is very wrong. The problem of inappropriate and disproportionate influence of particular trade unions and their memberships afflicts her leadership too.
Because while there is much fun to be had by political commentators and other parties poking a stick at this issue, it has wider significance. When a party is riven, as Labour clearly is, such division makes it difficult to function in the public arena with any semblance of competence. The eye is off the ball. And that does not make for an effective opposition.
The SNP might like to have a free rein with which to run the country but good government needs stout opposition. The threat of a fully functioning and competent party opposite focuses minds and leads to more meaningful and thought-through governance.
And if Johann Lamont harbours any real ambition to steer Scottish Labour back to power in 2016 – no matter what the constitutional situation is – then she needs to act and get a grip on what goes on in her party’s pockets.
Most of the population will do little more than scan the headlines of this story, but that will be enough to confirm for them that they made the right choice in 2011 when they took their votes away from Labour. And it will encourage them to stay away in 2016. A party mired in a mess of its own making, particularly when it fails to clean up that mess, is not one you want to trust the running of a country to.
As Margo MacDonald is fond of saying, you wouldn’t trust this lot to go for your messages.