If by some mischance you’ve happened upon Prime Minister’s Questions recently, you’ll be familiar with David Cameron’s obsession with Unite – the country’s largest trade union and Labour’s biggest union donor – and its General Secretary, Len McCluskey.
For several months the PM has seemed unable to answer two consecutive questions from Ed Miliband without reminding him how he owes his election to the votes of unions like Unite, which has now, he accuses, “taken over” the party: funding it, dictating policy, and controlling the selection of parliamentary candidates.
It’s a typical Westminster game with a small kernel of truth at its centre, which, when distorted and repeated shoutily thrice weekly, most of us find puerile. But Cameron’s unstoppable, and he was at it again last Wednesday, accusing Unite of choosing Labour’s candidates.
This particular distortion involves asserting that the dubious and possibly fraudulent practices of the Unite-dominated Falkirk Labour Party, during the subsequently suspended selection of the constituency’s parliamentary by-election candidate, are being replicated nationwide in the many other seats where Unite-backed candidates are seeking adoption.
Michael Crick in his Channel 4 News blog challenged this supposed Unite hijack of candidate selection by examining its effectiveness. Of 41 constituencies targeted by Unite as seats where it hoped to get named individuals selected as Labour candidates, the union has been successful so far in 18 and unsuccessful in 20 – a 47 per cent success rate, which Crick suggested “doesn’t seem a very good return”.
Certainly, it falls short of the despotic control that Cameron would have us envisage. But neither is it rubbish, and, with Unite’s West Midlands success rate being over 70 per cent, it seemed worth looking behind the numbers.
First, as ever with Labour candidate selections, we must master the lists – at least three of them here. Number One is the party’s own Target Seat list: 108 constituencies, none currently held by Labour, which it hopes to gain in 2015 and on which it will focus most of its electoral effort. Fourteen are in the West Midlands.
Number Two is the All-women Shortlist list: the 50 per cent of target seats where Labour has decreed its candidate will be chosen not in an Open Selection, but from an All-women Shortlist (AWS). A disproportionate nine of these are in the West Midlands.
Number Three is Unite’s list of 41 seats, drawn very largely from Labour’s list, in which it sought the selection of named individuals as “working class and progressive candidates”, who would diversify Parliament’s representativeness and help steer the party towards more left-wing, union-friendly policies.
Seven of the 41 are in the West Midlands, of which five were also AWS selections. In five, though not the same five, the Unite-backed candidates have been selected; in two they were defeated. These are the selections I’ll summarise here, in order of the seats’ arithmetic marginality, or Labour’s theoretical winnability.
Top of Labour’s whole list, with a Conservative majority of just 54, is North Warwickshire . MP from 1992 to 2010 was Mike O’Brien, who served as a junior minister in several departments – including the Foreign Office at the time of the invasion of Iraq.
While from a working class background, O’Brien is not a Unite member, was a solicitor before entering Parliament, and clearly wasn’t ‘parachuted in’ to the constituency, as some Conservatives intimated. For whatever reasons, he was backed by the union and re-selected.
Wolverhampton South West was also represented until 2010 by a locally born former solicitor – Rob Marris, who remained a backbencher during his nine years at Westminster, with a voting record that included supporting the not obviously left-wing causes of the Iraq war and foundation hospitals. In another open selection, he too was reselected, backed by, among others, Unite.
Halesowen and Rowley Regis was held from 1997 to 2010 by Sylvia Heal, latterly a Commons Deputy Speaker. Her successor as Labour candidate in 2010 was Sue Hayman, a Worcestershire-based constituency office manager and, as it happens, an active Unite member.
She lost, and this time, in an AWS selection, both she personally and the Unite union backed the successful candidate: Stephanie Peacock, a Cradley Heathen (resident, not speedway cyclist), former history teacher, and currently a regional political officer for the GMB union.
Among the defeated applicants was Najma Hafeez, Birmingham’s first female Muslim councillor, erstwhile chair of several major council committees, and nowadays an international management consultant.
The Nuneaton open selection included the only Unite-backed candidate mentioned so far who’s conceivably describable as ‘parachuted in’: Miriam O’Reilly, the former Midlands presenter of BBC One’s Countryfile programme, who successfully sued the Corporation for age discrimination.
It was almost fated, then, that she should lose out to Vicky Fowler, a councillor – like her mother – on Nuneaton and Bedworth BC, and at 22 one Labour’s youngest candidates. So, Unite’s record to this point: three wins, one loss.
Birmingham Yardley , represented since 2005 by Liberal Democrat John Hemming, brought a second setback. Unite nominated Eleanor Smith, a theatre nurse in Birmingham Women’s Hospital and in 2011-12 the first black woman president of the big public sector union, Unison.
Strong credentials, but in an AWS selection those of Birmingham Longbridge councillor Jess Phillips were judged even stronger. The manager of Sandwell Women’s Aid, Phillips is also the Council’s Victims’ Champion, responsible for representing the needs of victims of domestic and sexual violence and human trafficking.
Dudley South , though apparently the more Conservative of the town’s two seats, was comfortably held by Labour’s Ian Pearson from 1994 until he stood down in 2010. Brierley Hill councillor, Rachel Harris, was unable to repeat the trick in 2010 and was also defeated in this year’s AWS selection – by Unite-backed, local Unison organiser, Natasha Millward.
Stourbridge too, after losing Halesowen in 1997, was Labour-held until 2010. The loser then, Lynda Waltho, wasn’t involved in this year’s open selection, the winner of which was Pete Lowe, Deputy Leader of Dudley Council and cabinet member for finance. He was endorsed by Unite, despite having introduced a budget freezing council tax for a third year running, after most people in the council’s consultation had said they’d be prepared to pay at least a bit more.
It’s impossible from these seven mini-sketches and micro-biogs to draw any serious conclusions regarding Unite’s aims and activities. But my purely personal impression is that collectively – the chosen and the rejected – this Unite 7 don’t look like the sinisterly selected vanguard troops of “the most ambitious plan to take over the Labour party since the Militant Tendency in the 1980s” – as last week’s Sunday Times put it.
All seven are pretty local, several extremely so. Four were women, including the unsuccessful two, and most come from working class backgrounds, which is some contribution to broadening Commons recruitment. At least two of the men will be over 60 in 2015, which isn’t.
Only one was BME (black and minority ethnic), and she, like others on the shortlists, wasn’t selected – highlighting a problem Labour already knows it has with AWS selection. Two are paid union officials – of which there are already at least five in the shadow cabinet, so no recruitment broadening there – and most are union members, but not necessarily of Unite.
So, union-friendly undoubtedly, but otherwise hardly ideologically extreme and most not apparently terribly left-wing. In summary, a bunch of proven or promising politicians, already seeking election and already nominated by local party and union branches, on whom Unite has bestowed its additional blessing.
And its function in our political life? An instrument of self-aggrandisement for Len McCluskey and a convenient bogeyman for the Tories.
* Chris Game is from the Institute of Local Government Studies at the University of Birmingham