Steve Richards: Unite doesn't run Labour – it can't even run itself

If we want parties less dependent on outside funding we should pay them with state cash

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The saga of Labour, the Unite union and the planned strike is one about control, but not in the way that has been portrayed. The narrative suggests a mighty union clicks its fingers and a strike is called. While waiting for the strike to start, the same intimidating union selects candidates to become Labour MPs at the next election with the support of the control freak, Gordon Brown, and his old friend, the even mightier Charlie Whelan, who now works for the union.

In reality the story is much more about a spectacular lack of control, a common theme across the political spectrum. The union itself is not quite as mighty as it appears to be. As one cabinet minister put it to me "Unite is all over the place".

He did not mean that it is imperiously ubiquitous, but is faction ridden and, in its organisational pitch, has helped Labour candidates with a variety of different views and backgrounds. The union is so large that it does not speak with one clear voice and does not always act with one either. Charlie Whelan has his ardent backers in the union. But he has powerful internal detractors too. His strength derives as much from his relationship with Brown as it does from his power base with the union. It places him in a unique position, although not quite as kingly as mythology suggests.

This is partly because selection of parliamentary candidates is not entirely in the hands of the leader or a leader's close ally. All three main parties have headed towards allowing local parties far more leeway. In each case the fashion for "localism" has brought its own problems and reflects an ambiguity at the heart of our political culture, in some ways the most interesting dimension to the Unite story.

For at least ten years the media culture has been against any form of "control freakery" from the centre. As a result leaders and their allies have gone out of their way to lose some control.

In the case of the unions, they used to have much more power in selecting candidates than they do now. The story of the selection process in the build up to this election is the triumph of localism, not union power or control from the centre. In most of the safe seats that have come up so far local parties have tended to select candidates from the constituencies, often councillors who have been active for a long time.

The selection is partly a reward for service and based on an assumption that the candidate will be an assiduous local MP. Sometimes there is a third consideration, which is a desire to stick two fingers up at any sense of interference from outside. As a result quite often the centre's favoured candidate, or the union's choice, has not got the seat.

Not so long ago a regional organiser of a big trade union could hold sway over local parties in a much mightier way, and often with beneficial results in terms of the national political scene. It is difficult to see how in the current circumstances figures such as Michael Foot or Tony Crosland would be selected even if Charlie Whelan were on hand. A local party would more often than not prefer a long-serving councillor to represent them.

As a result instead of wallowing in the control being exerted by Unite some ministers worry about the composition of the next parliamentary Labour party precisely because no one at the centre, from Brown to Whelan, can exercise as much control as is currently perceived.

The same applies to some extent in the Conservative Party. David Cameron has been under pressure to make candidates more representative of modern Britain and yet, when he intervenes in the activities of a local party, he is accused of being a control freak.

The ambivalence has applied for years. During the 1997 election John Major was attacked widely for failing to dump Neil Hamilton as his party's candidate in Tatton, the seat contested successfully by Martin Bell. When Major pointed out he had no powers to instruct the local party to pick someone else, he was accused of being weak. But the fashion since then has moved, on the whole, to letting local parties have the final say.

The lack of control at the centre, rather than an excess of dominance, raises a much wider question about the role of a representative in a national parliament. MPs from all the parties tell me that they sense local constituencies seek a "councillor" figure to put their case at Westminster. But the actual demands of an MP are much wider.

MPs are potential ministers and shadow cabinet members. They must be policy makers at a national level and have the ability to make a case in the media. Representing a constituency is not the only function although it is obviously a significant one.

In the current drama the lack of control extends further. It is not entirely clear the degree to which Unite's leaders can control what happens in relation to the strike. Whelan wants to see it called off, but his power base in the union is not strong enough for his wishes to be automatically granted.

Brown has intervened directly and revealed at Prime Minister's Question Time yesterday that he had been hitting the phones again. Yet 80 per cent of those balloted voted in favour of the strike, knowing what a risky move it would be. To some extent they are the ones in control, those who voted. They are the equivalent of local party members.

More widely Labour has lost control of the pre-election agenda, arguably for the first time since the turn of the year. As one minister put it to me yesterday, "Put it this way, it was not on our pre-election grid". I bet it was not. It looks awful and has allowed the Tories to move on from Lord Ashcroft.

Yesterday Cameron could hardly believe his luck as he claimed that Britain was heading back to the 1970s, although the last time he gleefully made that suggestion was after the nationalisation of Northern Rock and his poll ratings fell when it was obvious he was talking nonsense.

Parties are in decline as forces of any significance, which is why successive Conservative leaders have turned to Lord Ashcroft for cash and Labour is dependent on Unite. Some local Labour parties have only a handful of members. Labour controls few councils and therefore does not have many active councillors, a source of local activism as the Conservatives discovered when they lost their dominance of local government in the 1980s and 1990s and found there was virtually no party left.

Unions have also been in decline but remain formidable organisations. Parties are shapeless, dependent on people joining and the strength at the very top. Unions have the workplace as the starting point, a context that gives them a degree of organisational strength that puny national parties can only dream of.

In the end it is up to all of us. If we want parties to be less dependent on unions or Lord Ashcroft for cash we can decide to pay for politics in the form of state funding. The current anti-politics culture means leaders dare not make the move. That is the biggest twist. The leaders of parties, unions or Lord Ashcroft, are not in control. We are.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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