This is a cross-post by Phil BC
And so the infamous “Falkirk episode” comes to a conclusion by way of a press release squeezed out on a Friday afternoon. The co-accused, Karie Murphy and Stevie Deans, have had the suspensions from the party lifted, and the powers-that-be conclude there is no case to answer. Reciprocating, Murphy has now withdrawn her interest in the Falkirk seat.
So the animosity and subterranean wrestling that rumbled on over the summer, culminating in the GMB’s announcement that it will be cutting its affiliation fee by about a million quid was for nothing. Except it wasn’t, as far as the leader’s office goes.
Let’s get functional. Political parties more or less condense and represent the interests of classes and fractions of classes. Depending on the character of the system they operate in, they may or may not be alliances of different groups with competing interests. In Britain’s notoriously unrepresentative representative democracy, First-Past-The-Post elections gives Westminster a two-and-a-bit party system, and political parties that are alliances of interests. Labour, for example, was from the beginning a coalition of the labour movement and sections of the professional middle class. For the ‘representative’ function to, erm, function, required that the party machinery itself act as a transmission belt. As well as winning elections, it holds its representatives (MPs, councillors, etc.) to account. It keeps them in touch with the aspirations, desires and interests of the party membership who, on the whole, are more or less representative of the constituency that formed and supports the party.
A simplification of what a party does, yes, but you get the gist. You can see why a strong party organisation is necessary to keep parliamentary and local authority elites in touch with what’s going on in the real world, and especially so where an incumbent has never shared life experiences similar to the people they support, and/or is caught completely up in the bubble-like subculture (or subculture-like bubble) of government and opposition. Where party organisation is weak, the stakes of the bubble are taken more seriously and, dangerously, can get confused with what’s going on in the real world. Unfortunately, as far as Labour is concerned it has suffered a “post-democratic” hollowing out, pretty much like every other mainstream political party in Western Europe.
Ed Miliband is a nice, personable bloke. Despite media portrayals to the contrary, he is much more substantial, intelligent and ruthless than the Prime Minister. But, from a labour movement point of view, he and his team are almost entirely beholden to the day-to-day nonsense of the Westminster bubble. Not surprising considering Ed grew up in an exceptional – as in unusual – family, went to Oxbridge and has since spent the entirety of his adult working life in a tight radius around central London’s political quarter. The same can be said about most, if not all his team of advisors. On the real lives of real people, Ed “gets it”, but only as something intangible – as one might “get” a logic puzzle, like a Rubik’s Cube for instance. Party organisation, if it’s doing its job, can mitigate the pathological obsessions of the bubble. But it’s not doing its job.
Falkirk is one of its bitter fruits. The demonisation of trade unions is common sense inside the bubble. Outside, no one really cares. When probed about it, people are more likely to trust trade unions than business. Pitifully few are arsed about the structuring of the relationship Labour has with the democratic workplace representatives of working people. Despite this, I’m very sad to say the leader’s response to Falkirk was thought through and addressed solely in the terms of closely-bounded political/media universe he inhabits. Prior to the interviews and speeches about “mending” Labour’s “broken” relationship, did he speak with trade union leaders before they got the traditional “embarrassing relative” treatment? I doubt it. Did he and his office come up with their plan to unilaterally recast the relationship regardless of the investigations into Falkirk? Of course they did. Why? Because they felt the heat of the Tories and the press and were desperate to to answer their jibes by concession, not robust defence. A bit of moderate union-bashing would play well to an otherwise hostile press, and it would draw the sting from the “weak” barb. It might give Ed some room to challenge Dave on donation caps too.
It hasn’t worked. The “narrative” is still the same. Though the plans aren’t entirely without merit, was the price worth it? The reputation of my union was dragged through the mud. One of the party’s best-known and popular figures resigned from the front rank of politics. The very legitimacy of trade union money in politics,donations from working people, was put into question. And now the party won’t have a million quid to fund the organising work we need to undertake to win in 2015. Falkirk might have been a cock up, but by no means was it the biggest blunder made this summer.