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Tuesday, July 09, 2013 

The continuing triumph of the political class.

There are two explanations for Labour and Ed Miliband's panic over what happened in the candidate selection process in Falkirk, with Unite widely accused of trying to manoeuvre Tom Watson's parliamentary aide Karie Murphy into place.  Either the party genuinely has lost all self-control on the very first occasion that an accusation against Miliband has stuck, terrified at the prospect of the Tories constantly invoking Len McCluskey as the biggest bogeyman in British politics, his hand firmly wedged in Ed's bottom, or this is a plan that has long been in the works which has duly been dusted down and brought out, designed to deal with the "union problem" as some within Labour have come to see it.  Sunny, not normally prone to seeing conspiracies, points out how Labour seemed to want to stoke up the row with Unite last week rather than calm it down or put in perspective.  Miliband's hastily arranged speech today more than smacks of being a back-up left in reserve.

Quite how this has become a national issue at this precise moment is remarkable.  Local parties are overruled all the time over their choice of candidate, or have apparatchiks parachuted in at the last minute.  There was just such an incident during the selection of Labour's candidate in the Rotherham by-election, while John Harris notes some other recent examples where the leadership's chosen candidate has resulted in grassroots anger.  The only distinguishing feature in Falkirk is that it's Unite that's been accused of trying to influence the selection, through not particularly subtle ways.  It's about as much of a reflection of the influence Len McCluskey has over Ed Miliband as it is of the power the mid-Bedfordshire constituency Conservative party has over Cameron through their continued support for Nadine Dorries.

We shouldn't get carried away, though.  No one wants to see a full break of the link between Labour and the unions, says Robert Philpot, director of the Blairite pressure group Progress.  Just because certain Labour MPs, like Simon Danczuk, think that the Labour left should be treated like the BNP for so much as disagreeing with the party line doesn't mean that they're out to get you personally.  That everyone has instantly reached for the "clause 4" analogy, and Blair himself has popped up to praise Red Ed, saying he wished he'd moved towards an opt-in rather than opt-out system for union affiliation doesn't mean that this was engineered as a "look how Ed is slaying the union dinosaurs and transforming his party" moment.  No, this was clearly cobbled together on the spur of the moment to ensure Ed doesn't go through another PMQ's where Cameron effectively spends the entire session just pointing and saying McCluskey over and over again.

Paradoxical as it seems, the changes set out by Miliband today are ultimately designed to increase the parliamentary party's control even further.  The suggestion of open primaries for the 2016 London mayoral election, for which David Lammy already seems a shoe-in, and other as yet unknown contests are there as window dressing.  As Mark Ferguson points out on LabourList, a spending cap for candidates and the unions/groups backing them sounds wonderful and fair, but it can also have the effect of giving a big advantage to the established/establishment candidates, stopping upstarts or late entrants from spending extra to get their name out there.

The message to the unions also couldn't be clearer: thanks for all the money down the years, but we've decided we don't need you any more. Far from this being about making a break with the "machine", an hysterical proposition when the entire shadow cabinet are products of it, making do with less from the unions has the same reasoning behind it as New Labour itself did. Even if you felt that the party had abandoned you, where else were you going to go? The far left is in even more disarray than usual, while the TUSC is an utter joke. It's us or bust, except now you won't have even the semblance of influence. It might eventually be a good change for both sides, but it certainly won't be initially.

When politicians retreat from offering a vision of a better future and instead only offer years of austerity and the dilution or abolition of hard won rights in order to "win the global race", all we get is the battles of the past, fought over and over again. The Tories are never happier than when recalling their sanitised history of the 80s, and so every union is the NUM, and every leader a baron, a Scargill in the making.  For a certain section of Labour, it will forever be the battle against Militant, with the Graun hilariously describing Neil Kinnock's speech in Bournemouth as one of the "greatest of the post-war period", and as a close second, the shaking off of the old dogma of nationalisation.  Those who otherwise hate Miliband are then naturally applauding what he's done today, even though next week they'll be back to bashing him again. 

While all these former glories are replayed, and as Chris points out, pretty much anyone under 40 now has only hazy memories of the miners' strike, normal people just see three parties that look much alike, against each other purely because they think they could manage things slightly better than their rivals.  It's not that ideology has died, as some would have us believe, or that right and left are now meaningless, it's that those who make up the political class have abandoned such labels because they're a part of the past they don't want to relive, when being either Labour or Tory meant something.  Now we all just pretend it does.

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