Over recent weeks, there has been a steady drip-drip-drip of revelations about two stories: the Labour Party selection in Falkirk, and the Grangemouth dispute which has trailed in its wake.
A recap: Britain’s largest union, Unite, stands accused both of manipulating the Falkirk selection and bungling the industrial dispute in the Grangemouth oil refinery. The same man, Stephen Deans, is at the centre of both controversies; Unite chair in Scotland, chair of the local Falkirk Labour Party and also convenor at the Grangemouth plant until his resignation last month.
But aside from the substantial impacts on both the union itself, Scottish industry and the Labour Party, the fallout from this little Scottish town is now snowballing, to the extent that it could have a much wider and long-lasting impact on trade unionism and labour law throughout Britain.
From this little detonation in the labour movement, a number of fires have simultaneously started burning. What Labour seems to have overlooked, over the years, is that there has been no want of kindling.
First, Ed Miliband must now manage not only a clamour for the reopening of an enquiry into the Falkirk parliamentary selection, an issue he thought he had effectively sorted out months ago. The selection debacle also – rightly, in the eyes of many – ended up prompting the biggest-ever reform of the party’s funding and organisation.
Now, if implemented, this reform would mean a radical downscaling of the power of union bosses in conferences and selections, and risks a comparably substantial cut to union funding. Miliband has pretty much staked his own political credibility on a vote at a special conference in the spring, one which he is by no means certain to win.
Second, there is the impact on Unite. The luckless membership of Britain’s largest trade union is now faced with not one but two national controversies – Falkirk and Grangemouth – which are dragging the name of their union through the mud. Their General Secretary, Len McCluskey, has been personally involved in both.
In Falkirk, the accusation is that they tampered with the selection process, an accusation which is rapidly gaining credence with each release of emails found on Stephen Deans’ confiscated work computer.
McCluskey’s personal credibility has suffered heavily, as has that of the union. For example, when the Sunday Politics suggested Unite had prepared “nasty stuff” on Labour figures, McCluskey was vocal in his denial (8:05): “that’s not true!” But a few days later, the Sunday Times released an email from his head of legal, Howard Beckett (sent to Stephen Deans) which said precisely that:
“Comms will prepare the nasty stuff we know of individuals in the Labour party…”
This is embarrassing. Unite have failed to explain the email and clearly either the Sunday Times, a serious newspaper, fabricated the email or McCluskey has made a claim which is very doubtful indeed.
And that’s just the Falkirk scandal. There is also Grangemouth, where Unite threatened the shutdown of a plant. Not over pay and conditions, which would have been understandable; but over the suspension of Deans as convenor. In protecting his own – and more importantly, in protecting a man intimately acquainted with all the details of what happened in Falkirk – McCluskey was prepared to take Scotland’s only oil refinery to the brink of closure.
Further, during the Grangemouth dispute, groups of people were sent around to directors’ houses, to stand outside and intimidate them and their families in a rather unpleasant practice known as “leveraging”. McCluskey, however, says their practices are "nothing illegal, and certainly no bullying or intimidation".
And so we come to the third and most disturbing impact of all this for those on the moderate wing of the Labour party, and of the union movement: McCluskey’s antics now threaten the good work of all unions.
David Cameron has seen his chance: on Sunday it was announced that a major review would look into “bullying” practices such as leveraging. Because Unite’s leadership seems to have become so divorced from reality, they genuinely believe that the average citizen would have nothing against such practices. They are wrong.
What has happened is that Unite has unwisely allowed David Cameron to become the voice of sweet reason. Since the Tories left power in 1997, the subsequent legitimate and overdue reforms – right to workplace organisation, minimum wage and so on – have stayed largely untouched. At a stroke, McCluskey has now given Cameron the foot in the door to change that.
Cameron circa 2013 is a very different beast from the husky-hugging 2006 vintage, one whose review seems highly likely to confirm that the practice of leveraging must be discontinued. And a Tory politician, who perceives his principal threat as from the right, is unlikely to stop at first base. And what those who would argue against him least need is for the rug to be pulled out from under them.
Margaret Thatcher could get away with legislating heavily against unions because the public was fed up with them. She successfully made a bogeyman out of miners’ leader Arthur Scargill, because he was a man with a spectacular lack of self-awareness who walked straight into the trap.
Within Labour – not to mention, surely, a large number in the Unite union itself and other, more moderate, parts of the labour movement – there are sensible people banging their heads against a wall, thinking that the important reforms that we all fought so hard for are once again at risk. They are at risk: and again, largely through the foolishness of one man.
But the answer is not for those people to pretend that nothing has happened and everything is fine; that way lies madness. The answer is for them to stick up for good trade unionism and kick out the bad trade unionism.
The blind support which Labour often affords the union movement is the last thing we need. No, it is to wake up to what is going on in our unions, be a critical friend and call out the bad practices like leveraging. If we don’t, the Tories will and, what’s more, they will have the public on their side and they will not stop.
Where McCluskey is right is that there is likely to be a major assault between now and the election on unions in general. It is instinctive for most Conservatives to want to beat unions, and it probably always will be.
What is not necessary, and what he is now doing, is to furnish them with the stick.