Amidst all the furore over Falkirk Labour Party’s selection of its election candidate for 2015, Unite leader Len McCluskey – accused of trying to manipulate the process in favour of his anointed candidate – made great play of his desire to change the face of Westminster.
He would replace the Oxbridge cabal on the Labour benches with working class MPs from outside the political classes, espousing left-wing policies.
Check against delivery
“We want to give our democracy back to ordinary working people,” McCluskey wrote in The Mirror last month. “We say they need to be given a fair crack of the whip in the Labour Party in particular – the Party that was founded to represent working people, because the establishment of a century ago ignored them.”
He lambasted Blairites who were “angry that Unite is supporting candidates who want radical policies”. This after he accused New Labour of “dishing out seats on the basis of personal connections” in an article in the Guardian in May.
Opening up Parliament to working class candidates? Reducing the number of insiders and usual suspects filling up the green benches? What noble intentions.
And what utter bollocks it turns out to be.
The full list of Unite-backed candidates was revealed last month after the Falkirk row ignited, but it received little attention or analysis. While it’s true that it contains few Oxbridge graduates, Len’s List is rammed to the rafters with political insiders and full-time union officials – the very networks that provide plenty of Labour MPs already.
But that’s far from the worst of it.
The Minister for Baghdad Booty
Mike O’Brien is the Unite-backed candidate for North Warwickshire. He was MP for the seat from 1992 to 2010, when he lost by just 54 votes to the Tories – one of the tiniest majorities in the country. No wonder he wants his seat back in 2015.
What’s less clear is why Big Len’s Unite – supposedly so keen on “radical policies” – is backing him.
Mike O’Brien would like his seat back. Better watch out, Iran
During his two decades in Parliament, Mike O’Brien held a variety of ministerial posts. Perhaps the most high profile of them was his stint in the Foreign Office from 2002-3, as Minister for the Middle East. After helping to broker the now infamous warming of relations between Britain and Colonel Gaddafi, he was part of the Foreign Office ministerial team that took us into the Iraq War.
Let me say that again. He was part of the Foreign Office ministerial team that took us into the Iraq War.
The Iraq War that cost Britain £8.3bn, led to more than 100,000 civilian deaths and did huge damage to international relations. That Iraq War.
Well, it’s a ‘radical policy’ – of sorts.
O’Brien’s specific role became that of cheerleader for British firms looking to profit from ‘reconstruction’ of the mess we’d made. In November 2003, he spoke at a London conference urging British companies to join Bechtel and Halliburton in the Iraq War contracts jamboree.
“I hope that, as was the case with the original Bechtel contracts, British companies secure a large slice of the new contracts,” he told his audience. “Already, many British firms are contributing to the reconstruction programme in Iraq across a wide range of sectors.
“As I have mentioned, the new Iraqi currency was printed by De La Rue. In the field of engineering, Halcrow, Mowlem and Mott MacDonald are helping to build the future of Iraq – literally. International transactions in Iraq will soon be processed by a consortium including Standard Chartered Bank…
“So I sincerely hope that when the $18.6b [reconstruction funding] approved by the US Congress comes on tap, British companies will again be able to secure a significant proportion of the contracts.”
He wasn’t actually much cop at it – the US duly handed most reconstruction contracts to American firms, who promptly bodged the whole thing up whilst making a financial killing from it.
Len McCluskey wrote in The Mirror: “Unite is proud that it is trying to reclaim Labour from the people that bought in to the free-market myth wholesale.”
Is it proud to be backing Mike O’Brien?
The council cutters
Back in January, McCluskey imagined a world where Labour councillors tried to resist cuts ordered by the government.
“I’m not suggesting for one second that this would happen but wouldn’t it be incredible if all Labour councillors said they were not going to make the cuts,” he told an audience at the LSE. “Wouldn’t that be fantastic? Wouldn’t it be incredible if every Labour council in our nation said: ‘We’re not implementing these cuts?’ What would happen?
“Our message is always that [Labour councils] should engage with the trade unions and work together to see if cuts can be minimised, to see whether there is an opportunity to build a resistance to what the Tories have imposed on them.”
So when Unite decided to back various Labour councillors in their bids to run for Parliament, presumably they went for anti-cuts campaigners?
In reality, those Labour councillors who do try and fight Labour council cuts soon find themselves suspended or forced out – Kingsley Abrams (a Unite member, no less) in Lambeth, George Barratt in Barking, Keith Morrell and Don Thomas in Southampton.
The councillors on Len’s List are cut from rather different cloth.
Engaging with the unions, Islington Labour style (photo: PCS Euston)
There’s Catherine West, leader of Islington Council, and Unite’s successful choice to run for Hornsey & Wood Green. Not long after she took over the council in 2010, police were called in to forcibly remove protesters – including local Unite members – against her council’s plans to cut spending on counselling for rape victims and teenagers leaving care, day centre provision for the elderly, and support for foster parents. Council funding for charities has now fallen by 17.5 percent in three years; Solace Women’s Aid, a domestic violence charity, has seen its funding fall by a third. Up to 700 council jobs were expected to go by 2015 – including, one imagines, members of Unite.
Then there’s Vicky Foxcroft, selected for the safe seat of Lewisham Deptford. She’s chair of the Labour group on Lewisham Council, traditionally a Labour fiefdom. Foxcroft – a councillor since 2010 – is not technically on the ruling executive, but her role is one that entails loyalty to the Labour council leadership, headed by elected mayor Steve Bullock.
So, what kind of council is it? What is the record of the Labour group she is a leading member of? Well, Steve Bullock himself doesn’t have much time for Big Len’s call for no-cuts budgets but the Labour council has a rap sheet longer than most. Lewisham was one of the first councils to dive into a long-term cuts programme and just earlier this year it agreed a new three-year cuts programme including ending universal access to the youth support service and axing funding for under-fives’ play clubs.
Moving on, there’s Pete Lowe, running in Stourbridge. Pete is deputy leader of Dudley Council, and also cabinet member for finance. This means he has a key role in drawing up the council’s budget. So when, in March this year, Dudley Council passed a budget that froze council tax even though most respondents to a public consultation said they were willing to pay more, it had his name all over it. When that budget drove money into council reserves whilst slashing funding for frontline services, it was his responsibility.
And when those service cuts include reduced care for disabled people, funding cuts for mental health and learning disability services, a range of cuts in elderly care, increased “community led litter picking” – litter duty for the public? – and a long list of cuts to children’s services, including “reduce voluntary and community sector commissioning budget to vulnerable children, especially those living in homes where adults abuse alcohol and drugs and where there is evidence of domestic violence”…
…then it’s safe to start judging him.
Not that he sees it that way. “We are clear on direction and purpose – to offer an alternative voice to the Tory government for millionaires,” he said while passing the cuts budget. Which is odd, seeing that the Tory councillors in Dudley actually voted to support it.
Not half as odd as Len McCluskey supporting him, mind.
The usual suspects
But the Unite list features 41 names, not just four. Let’s move on from policies and track records -perhaps the full Unite list fulfils Len’s pledge to extend Labour’s parliamentary party beyond the usual insider networks?
I’ve listed the 41 Unite-backed candidates further below, together with a quick run-through of what they do. Many of them have working class backgrounds, but mostly they are in very much middle income careers – especially when you consider that full-time trade union officials are usually paid more than £25,000, sometimes much more. Of course, we don’t know their current salaries, but their lines of work indicate most of them aren’t struggling to pay the rent, regardless of how their parents may have lived.
But what is far more damning is the number of them who already have (or had) jobs in politics – as councillors, student politics leaders, working for an MP, member of Labour’s ruling National Executive. People with those roles are already inside the political networks from which plenty of existing Labour MPs emerged. They might not have taken the Oxbridge-spad route, but these are well established career paths for MPs.
Then there’s paid trade union officials – not shopfloor workplace reps, but paid regional and national officials, usually full-time and often on comfortable salaries. For all the talk of Oxbridge types in Westminster, there are already many Labour MPs who are former full-time union officials – in fact, five currently sit in the shadow cabinet (Burnham, Winterton, Flint, Benn, Angela Eagle), plus at least two recent cabinet members (Tom Watson, John Healey) and ’rising star’ Michael Dugher.
In other words, paid trade union officialdom is an established route for prospective MPs.
Of the 41 candidates on Len’s List, 25 have or had a formal political role – that’s 60% of them. Chuck in the paid trade union officials on the list and you have 80% of the Unite-backed candidates coming via established political career paths and insider networks.
Which is interesting, given that a Smith Institute study found that fewer than half the existing Labour MPs after the 2010 election had an occupational background in politics or trade unions. They may have used different methodology, but the variance remains stark.
Compare all that with the seven candidates on Len’s List working in education, health or other public services, and the five working in manual labour or transport, and the idea that Unite are opening the gates of Westminster to outsiders falls apart.
Len’s light sabre
How precisely Unite came to settle on this list is not exactly transparent. But most of these candidates were not backed solely by Unite. They were often supported by a number of local union branches – including Usdaw, whose politics are very far from left-wing – and typically had a roll-call of endorsements from Labour bigwigs, local councillors, the odd MP. The evidence of central co-ordination is not strong – rather, it looked more like the kind of candidates who’d normally run for election, backed by local union branches, with Unite HQ sticking its national badge on at the end.
In other words, the line peddled by both Unite and the Right – a trade union using its national muscle to transform the face of the Labour Party towards a working-class Left – lacks any firm evidence.
So why claim it? Well, it enables Big Len to position himself as a ‘big hitter’ in the Labour Party, with more power and reach than he really has. As he tries to pump himself up as a key powerbroker who holds the future of the unions, Labour and the Left in his hands, talking about a fantasy list of anointed candidates – of whom fewer than half have so far succeeded in their battle for selection – is rather handy. It maintains the myth of ‘reclaiming the Labour Party’ and attempts to justify the millions of pounds of members’ money that is wasted funding it.
Big Len takes on the two Eds. In his dreams
Admitting that the sabre he is waving is in fact a stick would not help him in his endeavours.
But the long and the short of it is this. Either Len McCluskey is backing a bunch of political insiders and council axemen with a warmongering ex-minister as the cherry on top, or local union branches are simply supporting the same kind of people who normally get selected to stand in general elections.
Bad business, or business as usual? Either way, Len McCluskey is talking bollocks.
Len’s list in full:
Candidates who won a Labour nomination: 13
Dudley South: Natasha Millward – white, female; paid union official (area organiser, Unison); previously worked as student development officer in Further Education colleges
Burnley: Julie Cooper – white, female; councillor and council leader (Burnley)
Lancaster & Fleetwood: Cat Smith – white, female; union rep; job unclear, describes her work as “supporting social work professionals”; former Westminster researcher; former member of NUS national executive; previous Labour candidate (Wyre and Preston North, 2010)
Lewisham Deptford: Vicky Foxcroft – white, female; Councillor and chair of Labour group (Lewisham); Paid union official (finance sector industrial officer for Unite)
Hornsey & Wood Green: Catherine West – white, female; Council leader (Islington); previously worked in welfare and housing, and worked for David Lammy MP
City of Chester: Chris Matheson – white, male; paid union official (industrial officer for Unite); previously worked in the electricity industry
Brighton Kemptown: Nancy Platts – white, female; Marketing communications professional (director at Claremont, an agency focused on working with the third sector); previously a paid trade union official, senior project manager at GLA, and Head of Policy with the Daycare Trust; previous Labour candidate (Brighton Pavilion, 2010)
Plymouth, Sutton & Devonport: Luke Pollard – white, male; Lobbyist (Head of Public Affairs, ABTA); formerly head of Labour’s international office; later worked in PR (public affairs account manager at Edelman); past clients included Sainsbury’s, South West Water and Cancer Research UK; formerly researcher to two Labour ministers; previous Labour candidate (South West Devon, 2010); student union president (Exeter, 2001)
Halesowen & Rowley Regis: Steph Peacock – white, female; Paid union official (West Midlands political officer, GMB); formerly a secondary school teacher; former member of Labour NEC; current member of Labour National Policy Forum; previously worked for Labour MP Sylvia Heal; girlfriend to Tom Watson MP
North Warwickshire: Mike O’Brien – white, male; Labour MP for North Warwickshire from 1992-2010; held numerous ministerial positions throughout, including at the Foreign Office during the Iraq War
Wolverhampton SW: Rob Marris – white, male; Labour MP for Wolverhampton SW 2001-10; voting record – backed the Iraq War and foundation hospitals, though he did rebel against top up fees in 2004
Stourbridge: Pete Lowe – white, male; councillor, deputy leader and cabinet minister for finance (Dudley); previously worked as a nurse for many years
Cardiff Central: Jo Stevens – white, female; trade union solicitor and law firm director (Thompsons Solicitors)
Candidates who did not: 18
Amber Valley: Julia Long – not certain if I have the correct one – white, female; paid union official (national officer, Unite)
Sherwood: Lachlan Morrison – white, male; councillor (Ashfield); works as a plasterer; trade union workplace rep (shop steward, UCATT)
Kingswood: Rowenna Hayward – white, female; paid union official (union membership development officer, GMB)
Blackpool North & Cleveleys: Chris Webb – white, male; paid organiser for North West Labour Party; previously worked for MPs including Gordon Marsden
Bermondsey and Old Southwark: Gavin Edwards – white, male; councillor (Southwark); paid union officer (national officer, Unison)
Enfield N: Annajoy David – BME (Asian), female; businesswoman and company director (ran a business restoring and building houses in Spain); former vice chair of CND; previous Labour candidate (Scarborough and Whitby, 2010)
Bury N: Jane Lewis – white, female; councillor (Bury); trade union workplace rep (Unite, Co-op Bank)
Manchester Withington: Angela Rayner – white, female; paid union workplace rep (Stockport Council branch secretary, Unison, reportedly paid £20kpa); formerly worked in social care
Warrington South: Sharon Connor – white, female; social housing worker (environmental officer, Liverpool Housing Trust); current member of the Labour Representation Committee national committee
Weaver Vale: Rebecca Long-Bailey – white, female; solicitor (Hill Dickinson, health)
Wirral W: Christine Spriggs – not certain if I have the right one – white, female; involved in music education (regional executive officer NW, Youth Music)
Hove: Simon Burgess – white, male; vice chair, Labour National Policy Forum; currently works in education (marketing and projects manager, Hamilton Lodge School and College for Deaf Children); former councillor and council leader (Brighton and Hove); formerly office manager for Des Turner MP; previous Labour candidate (Brighton Kemptown, 2010); formerly worked in mental health for the NHS
Bristol South: Amanda Ramsay – white, female; public affairs consultant, generally for charity campaigns; national organiser and vice chair of think tank/forum Pragmatic Radicalism; former councillor and council cabinet member (Merton); used to work for Graham Stringer MP
Birmingham Yardley: Eleanor Smith – BME (black), female; trade union president (Unison); nurse, (Birmingham Women’s Hospital)
Nuneaton Miriam O’Reilly – white, female; journalist; jointly leads the Labour Commission on Women; former TV presenter (BBC Countryfile), sued the BBC for age discrimination
Sheffield Hallam: Martin Mayer – white, male; bus driver; trade union workplace rep (branch secretary, Unite); trade union executive member (executive council member for passenger transport, Unite)
Stockton South: Linda Hughes – white, female; councillor (Darlington); paid union officer (senior union support officer, TUC)
Falkirk: Karie Murphy – debarred from selection; white, female; office manager for Tom Watson; former workplace trade union rep (Unison, Glasgow Victoria Hospital); former NHS health visitor; former chair of Scottish Labour
Nominations yet to be completed: 10
Ilford North: Mike Hedges – white, male; taxi driver; union official (chair, Unite London & Eastern Political Committee)
Finchley & Golders Green: Alon Or-bach – white, male; software engineer in the mobile technology sector; member of Labour’s National Policy Forum
Brent Central: Kate Osamor – BME (black), female; describes herself as ‘representing disadvantaged families’ – not sure of specific role; trade union committee member (Unite, London and Eastern Regional BAME, and Community Workers and Not For Profit committees)
Pendle: Azhar Ali – BME (South Asian), male; current councillor (Lancashire) and former council leader (Pendle); director of Rumi Consultants (not clear what the company does or whether it is active)
Cleethorpes: Ian Gent – white, male; trade union workplace rep (BAE staff union convenor, Unite)
Pudsey: Jamie Hanley – white, male; specialist trade union lawyer (head of client relations, Pattinson & Brewer); has been member of Labour’s regional board and executive; former member of Labour’s National Policy Forum; previous Labour candidate (Pudsey, 2010)
Elmet & Rothwell: Veronica King – white, female; paid charity officer (campaigns and media work, Alzheimer’s Society); previously worked at the Daycare Trust; previously worked at the Greater London Authority; former member of NUS national executive
Dewsbury: Paula Sherriff – white, female; councillor (Wakefield); health worker (service manager, Virgin Care)
Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale & Tweeddale: Archie Dryburgh – white, male; opposition councillor (Dumfries & Galloway); works in training and education (vocational assessor for Magnox, trainer with NG Consultancy)
East Dunbartonshire: Alan Moir – white, male; councillor (East Dunbartonshire); rail worker with Scotrail