The Labour Party is in great danger.
An unholy alliance of politically ambitious über-Blairite Shadow Cabinet members, Tory politicians and outriders and a large swathe of the press are conspiring to sever Labour’s trade union link. It is not just an attempt to drive Britain’s biggest democratic movement out of political life. It would dissolve what the Labour party is – the clue is in the name – ending what connection with working people it still has, leaving it a rootless party, a mere plaything of vacuous careerists and apparatchiks.
It all began with a punch in Parliament’s Strangers Bar, as the troubled former Labour MP Eric Joyce ended his political career in drunken disgrace. The race to replace him in Falkirk was bitter indeed, but the focus has almost exclusively been on Karie Murphy, the Unite-backed candidate. But Labour’s internal Falkirk report is said reveal that her opponent, Gregor Poynton, recruited 11 new members, submitting a single £130 cheque to pay for their subscriptions. He wasn’t said to have done anything wrong. He wasn’t contacted by the inquiry, nor was any other candidate. Poynton is the classic candidate of an incestuous political elite with a chronic sense of entitlement. He works for a media strategy company that has a contract with the Labour Party. He is the husband of shadow minister Gemma Doyle, who is in the team of Labour leadership wannabe and shadow Defence Secretary Jim Murphy. Scrutiny of Poynton does not fit into this crusade against the trade union movement.
Police officers should spend their time chasing murderers and rapists rather than dealing with acrimonious party selection battles. Now they are involved, the truth will come out, and each candidate will have questions to answer. But, speaking of scandals, how about this? Where was the outrage when party apparatchiks spent years stitching up seats, parachuting special advisers into constituencies that they had never even heard of? Parliament has increasingly become the preserve of well-connected Westminster insiders, while the barriers to anyone with a vaguely normal background have become ever more insurmountable.
Over the weekend, key Labour figures briefed favoured Guardian journalists about a proposed final break with the trade unions, since disavowed by Ed Miliband. We cannot be sure who they are. What we do know is that there is a hardened Blairite axis within the Shadow Cabinet, led by former David Miliband campaign managers Jim Murphy and Douglas Alexander, and including Caroline Flint and Ivan Lewis. To give an illustration of their politics, the four privately demanded that Labour should support the Tories’ Welfare Uprating Bill earlier this year, which inflicted real-terms cuts on in-work and out-of-work benefits. None of them ever reconciled themselves to Ed Miliband as leader; whenever he has faced political trouble, Alexander and Murphy’s operations have spun into overdrive. Their expectations of what Ed Miliband must do constantly shift and can never be satisfied.
Now that David Miliband has crossed the Atlantic, Murphy is positioning himself as holder of the Blairite flame, plotting to take the leadership should Ed Miliband ever fall. Murphy’s approach to politics was honed from his days in Labour Students, in practice long a recruiting ground for the sort of desperate political careerist who practises party conference speeches in front of bathroom mirrors from the age of six. It is a murky world where positions of power are decided in bars and through private, secretive conversations. When these student hacks evolve into senior politicians, they debate who should be the candidate in what constituency over Islington dinner parties.
Somewhat oddly, I found myself sucked into last week’s intrigue by the Telegraph journalist Dan Hodges, a man in the pay of the Barclay brothers with the apparent brief of causing as much disruption in Labour’s ranks as possible. He appeared on BBC2 to claim that Ed Miliband had ordered his shadow ministers not to criticise me; that I was a “made man” in mafia terminology; and that Miliband’s right-hand man Stewart Wood was my handler. My own (proud) links to unions were noted, including that – until recently – I was policy adviser to the trade union-backed think-tank Class. But none of the claims have any truth. It turns out this fantasy was leaked to Hodges by a political adviser to a shadow cabinet minister, as part of a counterattack to the perceived growing influence of trade unions and the left.
But forget the soap opera. Labour’s leaders have allowed themselves to be thrown off balance by a Tory crusade fuelled by Blairite ultras. They should have said that it is better to be bankrolled by millions of dinner ladies and care assistants than hedge fund managers, City bankers and legal loan sharks – like the Tories. That is exactly what would happen to Labour if the union link was severed. When Tony Blair attempted to dilute Labour’s reliance on union funds, it ended in the cash-for-honours scandal and a sitting prime minister being questioned by police in Downing Street. Before Labour’s 1997 election victory, the key Blairite ally Stephen Byers floated severing the union link: he ended his political career offering himself as a “taxi for hire” to corporate lobbyists. These union-bashers are completely beholden to private interests, and they want Labour to be, too.
The tragedy is that unions are getting precious little from the Labour Party. The irony of David Cameron’s hysterical claims that Miliband is in the pocket of Unite’s Len McCluskey is that it comes just as Labour’s leaders have moved even further from offering a genuine alternative to Tory policies. Even after 13 years of a Labour government, Britain was left with one of the worst records on workers’ rights in the Western world. It was still one of the unequal developed nations, where workers’ wages were falling even before Lehman Brothers crashed, and where a dogmatic attachment to free-market economics ended in a catastrophic financial crash. Public spending was the great break from Thatcherism, and is now being decimated. If unions did not try to get candidates selected in the party they founded who want to stand up for working people, they might as well pack up and become footnotes in history books. It is a sad truth that there are those in the highest echelons of the Labour Party who want to extinguish what limited political voice working people still have. They would wreck a party they owe everything to for their own crude personal ambitions. They must not win.