An unhappy morning for Ed Miliband. His call in the Independent on Sunday for tax relief to be offered to companies which pay the living wage was overshadowed by reports in the Sunday Times (£) and Mail on Sunday about the disgraceful “shenanigans” by the Unite trade union and others during the selection of the Labour candidate in Falkirk.
There are renewed demands for Labour to reopen its internal inquiry into what went wrong in Falkirk, complete it and publish it. One can see why Miliband is so reluctant to do this: he thinks Falkirk is being used as a stick with which to beat him.
His problem is that he has failed to impose an alternative narrative of what he is trying to do with the Labour party. When David Cameron became Conservative leader, one of the things he soon became known for was trying to get more women to stand as parliamentary candidates in winnable seats.
The equivalent aim for Miliband is to try to get more working-class candidates to stand for Labour. He has expressed enthusiasm for this objective, and has set in train a process which is meant to encourage millions of trade unionists to get involved in Labour politics.
On 1 March next year Labour will hold a special conference at which Miliband will ask the party to ratify changes to the relationship between it and the trade unions. Ray Collins, a former Labour general secretary, in September published an interim report on the subject, entitled Building a One Nation Labour Party, in which he wrote:
“I have often heard Ed say that the three million working people currently affiliated to Labour through these unions – shop-workers, nurses, engineers, bus drivers, construction workers, workers from public and private sector – are the most under-utilised asset in British politics. So Ed has set out a bold vision to mobilise these individuals and build Labour into a mass party, growing our membership from 200,000 to 500,000, 600,000 or more. He wants working people to have a real choice about affiliating to Labour – and then a real voice as individuals within the party.”
But since the report did no more than express pious aspirations, it attracted next to no interest. This is an area where pious aspirations are not enough. Just as Cameron had to show he had recruited more women who would make good MPs, so Miliband needs to show he has recruited more members of the working class with the necessary abilities.
And as Cameron’s experience showed, to do this in a hurry is a difficult task, which is bound to involve failures as well as successes. One thinks of Louise Mensch, who in 2010 got elected as a Conservative MP, only to decide in 2012 that the Commons was not for her.
For Miliband, the trade unions should be his most helpful allies in this venture. They, after all, are the institutions which used to give Labour its very strong working-class representation, including figures of the calibre of Ernest Bevin and Alan Johnson.
One of Miliband’s difficulties is that Unite seems pretty useless at bringing on gifted members of the working class. As Falkirk shows, it instead tries with gross ineptitude to rig selections in favour of candidates whom it considers ideologically sound, but who lack any real gift for politics.
Unless and until Miliband can provide a better story about candidate selection, the Falkirk shenanigans will continue to hang round his neck. Cameron tried to hurry things along, and dramatise the changes he was making, with his A-list. The time has surely come for Miliband to draw up a W-list.