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THE artificial row over proposals pitched to the Unite trade union – which did not even act on them – to campaign to reselect the MPs Tom Watson and John Spellar in 2018 is a piece of right-wing political theatre.
As a militant left-led union, Labour’s biggest donor has long been a bogeyman for MPs on the right of the party. Baseless accusations of wrongdoing during the selection of a Falkirk candidate in 2013 were used to whip up a media storm leading to the Collins review, which made recommendations aiming to reduce trade union influence in the Labour Party.
The Collins recommendations backfired spectacularly on the right, with the one member-one vote system introduced for leadership contests resulting in Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader in 2015 – something unimaginable under earlier rules that gave MPs one third of all votes.
If Watson were given to impartial analysis he would note that the huge influx of members to vote for Corbyn was evidence that MPs, and not the Corbyn-supporting trade unions like Unite, were out of touch.
But he isn’t, and he responded to Labour’s massive increase in membership from 2015-17 with suspicion, prattling rubbish about Trotskyist infiltration as if there were half a million revolutionary agitators in Britain just waiting for their chance to seize control of a major parliamentary party.
Like Margaret Hodge, who denounces the notion that Unite might have considered challenging two sitting MPs as undermining anti-Tory unity, Watson shows staggering hypocrisy.
Both worked relentlessly to undermine Labour under Corbyn.
Both did so knowing that a partisan mass media would amplify their attacks without subjecting them to serious scrutiny: Hodge trumpeted her submission of 200 complaints about anti-semitic conduct to the party, but few would have learnt from the reports that 90 per cent of these turned out not to involve Labour Party members at all.
This episode is instructive when it comes to assessing Hodge’s self-publicised referral of Unite to the police. She does not have a track record of substantiating accusations before levelling them. She will also have concluded from the Corbyn years that mud sticks.
Is there a wider significance to this episode? Only that it should remind all trade unionists that MPs’ effective status as an unaccountable elite suspended above the movement is a serious problem.
Becoming an MP should not be a job for life and the right of constituency parties and affiliated unions to support challenges to sitting MPs should be defended, as Unite assistant general secretary Howard Beckett pointed out on Newsnight, though in this case the union didn’t actually do anything at all.
If Labour is reclaimable at all as a vehicle of working-class representation, it is essential that its parliamentary wing becomes more representative of the organised workers it was founded to speak for in politics.
Keir Starmer, whose “meet the real me” Piers Morgan interview has somehow failed to dent the Tories’ 16-point lead in the polls, claims that Labour needs to “stop looking in on itself and look out to the electorate.”
His desire to distance Labour from its own membership is rooted in what a Morning Star contributor once described as “an implicit assumption that politics is a specialised, professionalised game in which competing brands attempt to sell their product on the basis of a better understanding of consumer preferences.”
It is miles away from the conception of Labour as a movement that mobilises, persuades and engages in order to deliver real change. Yet there is plenty of evidence in Labour’s growth into a mass party from 2015 and its dramatic electoral advances in 2017 that a motivated mass movement can deliver electorally and actually change people’s minds about politics.
Whether the Parliamentary Labour Party is involved or not, building such a movement is the task facing trade unionists today.
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