Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

We should know what we’re charged with

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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Jennie Formby

is political director of Unite the union


  • “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. ” Bravo!

  • Unite’s political office need to get a grip on reality.

    They lost the right to lecture people on natural justice after their clumsy vetting of candidates (including active trade unionists in their own and other unions, and eliminating working class trade unionists who work for the private sector) on political criteria they never made transparent during the MEP process nor explained afterwards when challenged.

    There’s a question about whether Unite is actually promoting working class candidates, or just career committee hacks who have agreed to tow-the-line. They also don’t do any favours by constantly muddying the waters by creating phantom “Blairite” threats, or by accusing their opponents of being anti-trade unionist. Neither of these are true – but suggest a streak of political paranoia and sectarianism which isnt healthy for the Labour Party.

    That’s the point, not whether Peter Mandelson is a Lord or not.

  • Unite activity in selections is far from open and transparent. As a Unite member and as someone who has sort nomination, here’s a few examples:
    1) I’ve had emails and phone calls continually ignored by Unite re nominations.
    2) I’ve had Unite officers refuse to tell me who their political officers are.
    3) Unite officers have refused to inform me of who individual branch secretaries are who are affiliated to individual CLPs.
    4) Officers have refused to inform me when their nominations where to be held.
    5) Unite have even refused to tell me how to be interviewed/considered to be a member of their panels.

    In my experience, the attitude of Unite is a disgrace, and makes me consider my membership of a union that I’ve belonged to for 20 years.

  • Well done, Jennie Formby. As an Executive Council member of Unite, I look forward to seeing a copy of the “investigation” report. …As for that tedious stirrer, Mendelson, I would venture to suggest that the whole country is tired of his prattle. Does he seriously expect anyone to take morality lessons from someone who had to resign because of TWO scandals? Russell Kennedy you
    appear to be bitter, but if your complaints are genuine (as opposed to sour grapes) contact your local or Sector EC member or your Regional Secretary or the General Secretary or your Branch Secretary or Jennie Formby or…….do I need to go on?

  • I don’t think anyone meant that entryist,as infultrating more of getting union members at a local level to join and use their finance and logistics to promote their choice of candidate .

  • Yes they elected him to represent their union,not re present ,his choice for how he wants labour to be represented,and what policies he wants us to have

    Mandleson has won many votes over the years, including master minding the 13.56m who voted labour in 97′

  • Well all you have to do Jennie, is get the union to issue a denial of Peters assertions. You certainly need to do more than this piece. Your response to PMs well argued contribution is to

    1/ Claim you cant respond because you don’t know what the (Kafaesque) charges are?
    2/ Imply that others are doing what you were so that’s ok!
    3/ Respond to claims of entryism that are not made!

    I’m sorry but your reference to democratic accountability is pure BS. You know as does anybody with a modicum of experience of internal union activism these bodies are run by tiny, tiny groups of individuals without any reference to the wider membership.

    The sad fact is that Len and his ilk are far more interested in winning seats for their nominees than they are in winning power for the Party, after
    all they have all the perks and positions they need and are ever likely to
    obtain. All they represent is a 70s ideology that is dead everywhere bar the
    remaining husks of trade union activism. These areas have nothing to offer the
    left in terms of how to regain power. They have completely failed their
    membership in terms of providing an effective protection and until they can
    construct a model of activism that engages effectively with their membership
    and the wider public their only role will be to provide the likes of McCluskey
    and Co with a platform and lifestyle they could never hope
    to attain outside the trade union womb

    UNITE would be far better served by answering directly the charges PM makes

  • As a member of Unite and a member of Falkirk West constituency can I say to Ms Formby that if she had witnessed the disgraceful behaviour of some of our comrades in Unite then she would be a wee bit less vociferous in her support of Unite activities in my CLP.

    I personally witnessed Unite members intimidating and shouting down long-standing members of our CLP, I personally was shouted at and told to shut up in an aggressive and intimidating manner by one of the new Unite members when I tried to speak at the last CLP meeting held in Falkirk West. Indeed the behaviour of some members of Unite at that meeting was so appalling that our vice chair resigned in protest. That vice chair is a member of Unite, incidentally.

    I absolutely support the right of trades unionists participating in our Party. I absolutely support the right and recognise the advantages of trades unions to participate in our party.

    This isn’t about that, though. This is about a naked attempt to manipulate a selection process to get an individual a job. So far we’ve seen dodgy membership applications, intimidation of existing members, the use of high powered lawyers and now we have the ludicrous position where the CLP executive refuses to hold CLP meetings. We haven’t has one since March and there will not be one till at the earliest August.

    As a member of both Unite and Falkirk West CLP I am sick and tired of reading the bonkers conspiracy theory statements being released in the name of my union and CLP. The sad fact of the matter is that an element within Unite have attempted to manipulate this selection process and have done it in such a clumsy and cack-handed manner that they’ve turned themselves into a laughing stock in the CLP. They have made so many blunders and mistakes they are now known as the Keystone Trots…

  • “First, Unite and its predecessor unions have not ‘entered’ the Labour party. We created it.”

    No you didn’t. At best you played a small part in creating it.

    It is therefore time that the union movement stopped trying to claim sole ownership over the Labour Party, or sole credit for its formation.

    Other socialist organisations such as the Fabian Society and the Independent Labour Party (ILP) were arguably much more influential in the formation of the Labour Party, whereas many union leaders at the time were Liberal, pro-free-market and anti-socialist.

  • One of the problems about democracy is that it is mostly about elections and little else. Oh, I almost forgot, and who gets the money.

  • I think this discussion would be aided if everyone kept calm and only wrote about things they know about. Peter Mandelson’s and Jennie Formby’ items both pass that test. I don’t know about Falkirk or the internal affairs of Unite.

    “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.” Too right, Jennie.

    I have tonight read Chapter 2 of the Rule book, which includes “individual members of the Labour Party who shall pay a subscription”. If anyone seriously claims that allows subs to be paid by anyone but the member, an amendment is needed. I suggest adding to Clause 1.1. “For the avoidance of doubt, subscriptions may be paid by the individual member only and not by any other individual or body”

    If clause II 4 A “It is an abuse of party rules for one individual or faction to ‘buy’ party membership for other individuals or groups of individuals who would otherwise be unwilling to pay their own subscriptions.” isn’t strong enough, then perhaps a new clause II 4 G should be added. I hope it never becomes necessary to write affiliated organisations into the Labour Party rules in this context.

    Finally I am seeing two separate issues here. If there is grief in Falkirk and it is associated with picking the Parliamentary candidate, then moving the freeze date to the date that the sitting MP announced that he wouldn’t stand again is entirely appropriate.

    If there are also accusations against anyone who hold office in Unite, that does need to be discussed, but separately and later.

    At a tangent, I have a suggestions for problems of small and/or cliquey CLPs. How about, in Scotland, in Wales and in each English region with more than 1-in-8 of the PLP, there is no trigger ballot for the Labour MP with the smallest CLP membership, but a full selection?

  • It’s more than a small part, and its true that Unions were crucial in the formation of a national organisation.
    However, the claim the Unions created the Labour party is pretty rubbish history. I live in a place that had the first Labour MP and the first Labour-majority Council before that meeting was held. That’s why there’s a bust of Kier Hardie in the Old Town Hall.
    Until the Taff Vale judgement against the Society of Railway Servants, the prevailing TU opinion was to keep the deals with the Liberals and oppose the formation of a Labour Party. That continued to be the position of the Miners Federation of Great Britain for several years after the formation of the Parliamentary Labour Party.

  • I’ve just thought of something neat, simple and very effective that Labour’s NEC should decide, and get Conference to endorse.

    Whenever a sitting Labour MP announces that he or she will not contest the next election, that date is the membership freeze date for picking the next candidate.

  • Whilst there is merit to the idea, I don’t think it’s really practical. Selections can take place ages after an incumbent MP announces they’re standing down; Dawn Primarolo announced her retirement in Bristol South in November 2011, but a new candidate has only just been selected as of early June this year. It wouldn’t be reasonable to freeze voting rights for a year and a half, especially when it’s entirely possible some of the people who’ve joined the CLP in that time have since gone on to become important members of the local party (I joined my CLP’s executive less than half a year after I joined the party, for example).

  • I know what you mean, Pete, but you’re asking for the door to be left open for more Falkirks. I was implying that the NEC should promptly authorise those CLPs to get on with picking the new candidate. Very view MPs announce they are standing down as early in a Parliament as Dawn Primarolo has

  • If it was made sure that selections must be promptly organised and carried out after the announcement and membership freeze, then I think it’s definitely something worth considering. It’s certainly preferable to making it possible for a situation to develop to the point where retroactive action has to be taken, as with Falkirk.

  • This is less about Unite and more about West Coast Labour politics. It’s been a nasty cesspool of nepotism and old guard nonsense for many years – some of those who lost out have reinvented themselves as Unite activists. The trouble is, we’re not supposed to talk about that side of Scottish Labour so all the blame gets heaped on the Union. THe real story is what has Pat Rafferty been doing to manage this disaster?

  • I can totally understand why the voters are turning away from Labour . Why are the Unite officials and now the political dinosaur Kevin Lindsay of Aslef getting all worked up? As a train driver Mr Lindsay should explain why he can’t secure a pay deal that should have been in place in April. And why does he ignore the membership when they ask for a logical reason why Scotland’s train drivers’ are the lowest paid in the United Kingdom.

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