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UK Politics

Andy McSmith's Diary: Disunited - the spark of the Falkirk scandal that brought Tom Watson low

Our man in Westminster

Somewhere in Falkirk there is a working-class family who cannot, I suspect, know the full extent of the political explosion they helped to set off which has brought the shadow cabinet career of the Labour fixer, Tom Watson, crashing down.

Members of that family were on the list of people the Unite union claimed to have persuaded to join the Labour Party. When the family spoke to Linda Gow, a Falkirk councillor, it appears to have come as a complete surprise to them that they were party members. They wrote a letter of complaint, which she forwarded.

Ms Gow also forwarded a letter from another of Unite’s recruits, who wanted to know what information the Labour Party had been given about them. Those two letters set off the party inquiry into Falkirk.

The Falkirk story is a symptom of the decline of Britain’s big political parties. The constituency had only about 120 members in March 2012, when the sitting MP, Eric Joyce, self-destructed, leaving the choice of Falkirk’s next MP in the hands of just those 120, unless someone did some quick recruiting. In a few months, membership doubled. Unite supplied about 100 recruits, and about 30 were recruited by others.

One of the first to go after the seat was Gregor Poynton, the husband of the Labour MP Gemma Doyle, and a member of Falkirk Labour Party since he was about 20. The Labour Party’s unpublished report into Falkirk, bits of which are leaking out, says that in June 2012, Mr Poynton handed over a cheque for £137 to pay the fees of 11 recruits.

I am told that Mr Poynton has not been approached by the party, or  even shown the report that names him, because no one has suggested that he has done anything wrong. He is not commenting.

He is, anyway, out of the running because Labour’s national executive decided in March that Falkirk will have an all-woman shortlist. The selection then turned into a contest between Karie Murphy, who ran Tom Watson’s office and is close to Unite’s general secretary, Len McCluskey, and Ms Gow, who triggered the investigation. Ms Gow said: “If people share their concerns with you, you’re obviously obliged to pass their concerns on.”

There was not much Ed Miliband could do to sort out this mess, except disqualify everyone recruited to the Falkirk party after March 2012 from voting in the selection, which he has done. It was suggested that he should sack Tom Watson, his campaigns director. That turned out not to be necessary.

It’s full power ahead at Battersea: just don’t mention Gordon Brown’s sister-in-law…

When David Cameron met Malaysia’s Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Najib Razak, in the unlikely setting of Battersea power station, we may assume that the topics they covered did not include Gordon Brown’s sister-in-law. The power station was decommissioned 30 years ago. It is to be redeveloped by a Malaysian consortium to provide 3,500 homes, plus shops, restaurants and offices, and the two leaders were there for the ground breaking. “It is brilliant to see this project going so well,” said David Cameron.

What is not so brilliant is how the politicians in Sarawak, one of the states in the Malaysian federation, have treated the investigative journalist Clare Rewcastle Brown, who is married to Andrew Brown, younger brother of the former Prime Minister. She was born in Sarawak, which has been ruled since 1981 by Taib Mahmud. “He’s the tail that wags the dog in Malaysia at the moment,” she says. “If it wasn’t for the votes that he is able to deliver through his strongman tactics, Najib wouldn’t be in power.”

A few years ago, she became concerned about the destruction of Sarawak’s tropical forests by loggers. She launched the website Sarawak Report, and Radio Free Sarawak, to call the Mahmud regime to account.

On Wednesday she was barred by immigration officials  from returning to her birth place. In a video statement released on YouTube, she blamed Sarawak politicians and an unnamed “transnational corporation that is on the British and European stock exchanges”.

PM’s spokesman not fit for print journalists

Craig Oliver, the former BBC executive whom David Cameron hired as his director of communications in place of Andy Coulson, is not well regarded by the newspaper journalists who cover politics. They suspect that he cares only about the Prime Minister’s television coverage. Do television journalists think any better of him? Not to judge by the comment made at Wednesday night’s Spectator party by an eminent Sky TV hack who was heard to say: “Look, there’s that bloody Craig Oliver. What a useless waste of space he is!”

A cloakroom and dagger reshuffle

Every July, there is speculation in Westminster about whether there will or will not be a reshuffle. There is definitely going to be one this summer, though of an unusual kind. In the members’ cloakroom, each MP has a peg where, in olden days, they were required to hang up their swords but nowadays hang stuff like raincoats. The pegs are in alphabetical order of MPs’ names, but the Administration Committee has come up with the brilliant idea of rearranging all the pegs in alphabetical order of constituencies. A notice tells MPs to remove all their belongings by 18 July so that work can begin.

Tom’s got a band to Bragg about

“If you want to see an awesome band, I recommend Drenge,” was the odd final sentence of the resignation letter that Tom Watson sent Ed Miliband. I confess I had not heard of Drenge, but I learnt that they are brothers, Eoin Loveless, vocals and guitar, and Rory Loveless, on drums, who hail from Castleton, in the Derbyshire Peak District. I texted Watson to ask: “Why Drenge for God’s sake? Have you gone off Billy Bragg?” He replied: “Those boys needed a break.”