4 Jul 2013

Unite and Labour at war over Falkirk selection row

The leader of Labour’s biggest trade union donor says he has “no trust” in the party’s handling of the Falkirk selection row amid the suspension of two party members and the resignation of Tom Watson.

In an incendiary letter to Labour’s general secretary, Unite general secretary Len McCluskey said a party inquiry into claims the union tried to stitch up candidate selection was a “disgrace” designed to “smear” the union, and demanded an independent inquiry.

He accused shadow cabinet members of being “in the lead” of attacks on Unite – which he insisted had “nothing whatsoever to do” with alleged efforts to cram the constituency with new members.

“The mishandling of this investigation has been a disgrace,” he wrote.

“I, however, am obliged to uphold the integrity of Unite, and I can no longer do so on the basis of going along with the activities of a Labour Party administration in which I can place no trust.

“I will therefore be publicly proposing that an independent inquiry be held into all circumstances relating to Falkirk CLP and the conduct of all parties involved.”

Mr McCluskey’s intervention further stirred the seething dispute over allegations that Unite crammed the constituency party with 100 or more members whose subscriptions were paid by the union, some of them without their knowledge.

In a day of fast-moving developments, Tom Watson, who led Labour’s electoral campaign, stepped down as Labour’s deputy chairman and left the shadow cabinet, saying that he was stepping aside to safeguard “the unity of the party”.

In his resignation letter, Mr Watson revealed that he offered to resign on Tuesday, but was asked by Labour leader Ed Miliband – to whom he said he remained loyal and considered could be an “outstanding” prime minister – to “reconsider”.

And he risked embarrassing the Labour leader further by calling for an internal report into the controversy to be published – something Mr Miliband has refused to do.

As he fought to control the crisis, Mr Miliband announced he was suspending two members of the Falkirk party – constituency chairman Stephen Deans and Karie Murphy, Mr Watson’s office manager who was Unite’s favoured candidate for the seat.

The vacancy emerged when MP Eric Joyce was kicked out of the party after committing an assault in a House of Commons bar.

In a statement, Labour said that there were allegations that the pair may have been involved in a breach of Labour Party rules relating to “potential abuse of membership rules”.

Read more from Michael Crick on Tom Watsons’ DNA

Union Join scheme ‘a mistake’

Mr Miliband also said he was ending the Union Join scheme, established in the Tony Blair era, under which trade unions encouraged their members to join the party and were allowed to pay their subs for the first year.

Labour said that it was clearly “a mistake” to have a scheme which left the party “open to attack from our opponents”.

A senior Labour source said that Unite General Secretary Mr McCluskey would “obviously have to take some responsibility” for what had been done by the union he leads.

Mr McCluskey’s response to Iain McNicol was swift and combative, decrying the Labour investigation as “a ‘stitch-up’ designed to produce some evidence, however threadbare, to justify pre-determined decisions.”

“Even on the basis of this flimsy report, it is clear that these decisions cannot be justified,” he wrote. “There is no emergency which would justify imposing these undemocratic restrictions, since any real problems could easily be addressed before embarking on a parliamentary selection process.”

He said Unite would “cooperate fully” with an independent investigation and “draw appropriate conclusions from any findings regarding our own behaviour”.