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Labour and Unite: the awkward couple

By Anna Doble

Updated on 17 March 2010

As BA strikes threaten to overshadow the general election, Channel 4's Who Knows Who takes a look at Labour's links with the union behind the threatened action, Unite.

Gordon Brown: reflecting on Labour's turbulent ties with Unite? (Credit: Reuters)

Pre-election turbulence? Easter break walkouts by British Airways crew could not come at a worse time for Gordon Brown.

The prime minister has called the planned strikes "unjustified" and "deplorable", insisting they should be called off.

But why the public condemnation, via the media, when the union behind the planned action, Unite, is packed full of his pals? Not least his former spin doctor Charlie Whelan and Harriet Harman's other half Jack Dromey.

So is the tail wagging the dog?

When you consider Unite's 1.6 million members, its two leaders - Tony Woodley and Derek Simpson - and financial contributions to Labour in excess of £11m in the last four years, perhaps it is the other way round.

Unite came into being when Amicus merged with the Transport and General Workers Union in 2007.

Peter Watt, Labour's former general secretary, has said: "It is absolutely fair to describe the Labour Party as the political wing of Unite."

The Tories claim, without the financial guarantees granted by the union, Labour could not afford to fight the forthcoming election.

The furore certainly leaves a Lord Ashcroft taste in the mouth, in more ways than one. On the face of it, the Tory peer, with his love of military medals, could not be more different to the bullish trade unionists.

But it could be argued Ashcroft's donations to the Conservatives run parallel to Unite's financial scaffolding of Labour.

(Unite political director Charlie Whelan and his former boss Gordon Brown - Reuters)

And then there is Charlie Whelan, Unite's political director. Like Ashcroft for the Tories, he is said to be orchestrating Labour's strategic battle for marginal seats.

It is no coincidence two of Unite's inner circle will be running for Labour in May. Party treasurer and Unite deputy general secretary Jack Dromey is the prospective parliamentary candidate in Birmingham Erdington.

Meanwhile, ex Hornchurch MP John Cryer, a Unite activist, will try to make his Westminster comeback in Leyton and Wanstead.

At prime minister's question time on 17 March, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg said Whelan and Lord Ashcroft were like the "baron of the trade unions" versus the "baron of Belize".

Whelan is a famously tough political fighter. He is Gordon Brown's former press secretary and has been described by civil servants as an "aggressive hooligan", according to Rachel Sylvester in The Times.

The Brownite spin doctor is also thought to be one of those behind the "forces of hell" famously unleashed on Chancellor Alistair Darling at the start of the recession.

In a blog for The Spectator Peter Hoskins has written: "In many respects, the influence of Unite and Whelan is one of the great unexploded scandals of British politics."

Whelan is said to be working closely with Labour's general election coordinator Douglas Alexander, the international development secretary.

This brings the pro-Brown coterie full circle - Mr Alexander began his political career writing speeches for the prime minister, when Brown was shadow trade and industry.

The campaign Unite4Labour makes no secret of the deep-rooted connections between the Unite union and Labour.

Likewise, Unite's website proclaims "over 160" Labour MPs are members of its parliamentary group.

Its roll call includes Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth, Labour stalwart John Prescott and John Denham, who replaced Hazel Blears as communities secretary.

So the prime minister's attack on the "unjustified" strikes planned by BA staff this Easter is, perhaps, more a case of "C'mon lads, not before the election..."

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