Sunday, 7 July 2013

The Battle of Falkirk, 2013

There is a ‘line’ in the Labour Party – especially amongst left-wingers – that the Falkirk ‘packing’ story is a side-issue being jacked up by the Tories to damage Labour.
I don’t agree. It may well be eventually brushed under the carpet, but I think it is a defining issue for Labour and one which, eventually, will make or break the Party.

I have watched the Falkirk story unfolding with a feeling of despair.

Labour right-wingers such as Jim Murphy and a whole host of retired Blairites have leaped on the story as a chance further to attack the unions’ alleged influence within the Labour Party. Despite the undeniable evidence that – even if Unite have been trying to take over the Labour Party – they are clearly too inept at politics to ever do so, the Labour Right are using Falkirk as a lever to try to force Labour to ditch the unions once and for all.

By contrast, Unite’s reaction to being caught with their fingers in the till has been, alternately, protesting undying loyalty to Ed Miliband, then accusing the Labour Right of exaggerating the issue to try and stitch up the unions. #EmbarrassingReaction.

Finally, after a deafening silence during which the story spun out of control – whilst The Guardian reported that he was ‘furious’, and had resolved to cut Labour’s ties with the unions – Ed Miliband has at last put pen to paper and intervened. Apparently, Labour needs to ‘mend, not end’ the union link … whatever that may mean. And having thus reduced policy to a undefined sound bite, a whole array of Labour MPs has lined up to declare the matter solved.

Falkirk – a catastrophic disaster
I wish I had their confidence. I think Falkirk has been a catastrophic disaster for the Labour Party.

Firstly, amongst those millions of middle-class, southerner, just-to-the-right-of-Labour people-who-vote, Falkirk has raised again the spectre of the ‘loony left’ as a significant faction within the Labour Party. Dan Hodges is a hated figure amongst Labour lefties, but he knows this constituency well, and I absolutely believe him when he say that ‘Labour is toast’ … at least amongst these voters. Just when Ed, Ed and Liam might have been lulling them into a sense of security by a string of intransigent neo-liberal statements on welfare and borrowing, in weighs ‘mad McCluskey’ and upsets the apple cart.

On the other hand, of course, amongst those millions of working-class, northerner, left-of-the-Labour-leadership people who have left-wing principles and may well be Union members themselves (though who often don’t vote), Falkirk threatens to be the last straw. They have been growing ever angrier with a Labour leadership which won’t even renounce the bedroom tax. Now – as the Party not only cracks down on an (albeit clumsy) attempt to challenge the Party machine’s domination of selections, but actually hands its findings over to the police – they could be forgiven for giving up altogether on their attempt to express their politics via the Labour Party. Another couple of Falkirks, and the Labour Party might as well change its name to ‘Progress Labour’ and have done with it.

Last night, Labour’s lead in the polls was down to 5 points.

A catastrophic disaster for the Labour Party? Well, maybe on its own not decisively catastrophic, but add a couple of similar confrontations and it may well turn out to be so.

Party selections and their manipulation
I received a tweet from one chap who suggested that Labour Party candidate selections were perhaps not at the forefront of people’s political concerns. Maybe he is right. But even if he is, I would suggest that they ought to be at the forefront of people’s political concerns.

In elections – especially general elections – most people do not vote for the candidate, they vote for the Party. You only have to look at the number of MPs who turn out to be an absolute jackass to realise this. In such a situation, therefore, it is the candidate selected by the Party who either wins or loses the election, and thus on the constituency party falls the onus of choosing someone good.

But who are these ‘constituency parties’ which exercise such a vital function?

(NB all of what follows is quite as true for the Tories as for the Labour Party.) 

For the most part they are relatively small groups of people, drawn from a very narrow base, often loosely related by marriage, family or friendship. At most normal constituency meetings, a ‘good turnout’ is measured in the dozens not the hundreds, and many of these are woefully ill-informed about political issues beyond their immediate community.
For a selection meeting there will be a better turnout, but the cost of drawing in the increased numbers is a corresponding growth in the aggregated ignorance. Most of the people in the room will have not a clue about any of the issues being played out by the handful of political illuminati on the executive.

So who to vote for? Nobody, even the newcomer, wants to be tricked by a smooth-talking con-man. And thus ‘the word goes out’. One or two high-status individuals within the constituency will choose their preferred candidate, and it is respect for their judgement, and their influence, which recruits, first the Party faithful and thus, by a sequence of personal recommendations, the local Party-as-a-whole.

Thus it is, not that a candidate can get selected by using this process … no candidate ever gets selected without using this process.

And it must now be clear how open the process is to manipulation.
That is how Party favourites and SpAds are ‘parachuted’ into constituencies. Someone on high has a word with the constituency beasts, the word goes out, and selection is pretty much a forgone conclusion.

And that also explains how things go wrong at places like Falkirk. Given the small numbers involved and a normal margin of error, I would like to guess that there are few constituencies in the country where a couple of hundred new members all with one aim would not alter the result. At Councillor level, in some wards, a large-family-and-a-couple-of-friends will get you selected.

Giving the Man-In-The-Street a say
I have no idea what Unite have been doing wrong in Falkirk but, to be fair to them, the unions have been quite open for some time now that they want their members to attend local Labour Party meetings, to get involved, and to exert an influence on the politics of their local Labour Party.

At the end of the day, one has to ask what is so wrong with this? If a whole load of lefties decide they are going to join up to the Party, and providing they agree to abide by the Party’s rules and ethics, why shouldn’t they then try to influence its policies, and why shouldn’t they then vote for a candidate of the kind they want?
It seems quite clear that, at Falkirk, those newcomers didn’t follow the Party’s rules and ethics – maybe didn’t even follow the laws of the land – but, that apart, if large numbers of union members choose to get correctly-involved in the Labour Party, have they not the right to be heard … to be counted.

Under New Labour, the Labour Party ceased even the pretence of being a working-class party. Faced by the moral evil of Thatcherism, thousands of morally-motivated middle-class people joined the Party, took it over, and ousted the Tories. I was one of them. Thus the Labour Party became, not a party of the poor, but a Party of the relatively well-off who were morally-motivated to do good things for the poor.

Poor people, of course, were welcome – the middle-class leaders needed footsoldiers to deliver leaflets and populate the meetings. But the Party leadership became – and still is – overwhelmingly middle class.

And under this assault by nice people who had superior education, undeniable skills and an ability to win arguments, the working class first capitulated, then stopped going … and eventually stopped voting altogether.
What is the point in politics – the twittering classes have stitched up politics altogether.

And it is this situation which the Unions – albeit it in the most ham-fisted and ill-conceived way – have been trying to address by encouraging their members (whom they regard as more genuinely working class) to get involved.

The disaster of Falkirk
If wrong has been done at Falkirk, then it needs stopping. People who join the Labour Party have to obey the Party rules.

But what must not be allowed to happen is that Falkirk is used by the Party powerful as an opportunity to reassert the power of the party machinery within the selection process.

As most Party faithful – and as someone who was one of Tony Blair’s (loyal) constituents – I am fully aware that Labour CANNOT go into the next elections on a 1983-style left-wing manifesto. We have to adopt a mildly-left-of-centre stance which will play to the morally-motivated middle classes, or we will not get elected.

But anybody who thinks that merely moving ever right-wards to secure the centre is a strategy-to-get-elected is sadly delusional.

The biggest challenge facing Labour lies on the left. It is how to motivate those millions of poor and working-class people who currently see no point in politics … and indeed usually know nothing about politics. It is how to engage them, how to attract them, how to involve them, and how to give them a genuine voice in what the Party is saying or doing.

It is not the relationship between Party and Unions which needs mending, it is the CLPs and the candidate selection processes which need expanding, reforming and democratising.

At the battle of Falkirk in 1298, William Wallace faced Ed Longshanks. Wallace had mobilised the populace and defeated the authorities, but at Falkirk Ed Longshanks used his superior resources and strategy to destroy the movement and regain control. 

Let’s hope that Falkirk, 2013, is not the time when Ed Miliband destroys the chance for a popular voice within the Labour Party.

No comments:

Post a Comment