Peter Mandelson writes as if he has had sight of the report of the so-called ‘investigation’ into the Falkirk constituency Labour party. If so, he has the advantage over Unite. To date, Labour has repeatedly refused to provide us with a copy of a report which it is now using, via the usual methods, to discredit our union. Despite guarantees that Unite would be given a chance to examine and respond to any allegations of irregularities in membership in Falkirk before the report was acted on, this was not done.
Under these circumstances it is difficult to engage with those parts of Peter’s argument which are based on a complete assumption of Unite’s proven guilt. We are in a situation which would tax Kafka’s imagination – found guilty before we have even heard the charges. However, he raises some more important general points to which I would like to respond.
He says that trade unions should not be allowed to pay for their members to initially join the party. That is certainly a point worthy of further discussion. In any event, any member of the Labour party must want to be one and be willing to pay for membership themselves. Nevertheless, Unite and other unions have helped recruit through this method because it is within the rules as they stand. If Peter wants a rule change, then he is free to advocate that. But no one can rationally suggest that Unite should not use the opportunities presented by the present rules in exactly the same way as others do.
So let’s be clear. This is not entryism. Let’s count the differences:
First, Unite and its predecessor unions have not ‘entered’ the Labour party. We created it. We have been there from day one. Of course the relationship has changed, as it should, and will no doubt change further. But to present us as external manipulators, with references to “small cabals” is unworthy.
Second, our activities in constituency parties is open and above board. We are proud of our political strategy and proclaim it from the rooftops. No secrecy here.
Third, Unite members are not under some clandestine and severe Militant Tendency-style discipline. Once they are members of the Labour party – whether or not they are paying for the privilege themselves – they are free to choose either to follow or ignore the union’s recommendations on who to vote for as parliamentary candidates.
Peter implies that the process by which Unite decides who to support in Labour parliamentary selections is somehow opaque and sinister. In fact, it is fully democratic and open to scrutiny – the key role is played by democratically elected regional political committees, on which only members who are also individual members of the Labour party can serve.
Peter is within his rights to point out the relatively feeble turnout in the recent Unite general secretary election. Participation in these elections is too low, partly (although not wholly) as a consequence of archaic balloting procedures imposed by the Tories and left in place by New Labour. Nevertheless 144, 570 people voted for Len McCluskey to fill the role he does, which is 144,570 more than voted for the entire House of Lords, from which perch Peter Mandelson now addresses us.
Jennie Formby is political director of Unite the union
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