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However hard he tries to unravel himself, Ed Miliband is bound to Unite

By Peter Hoskin
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Ed MDid you hear the one about the Labour Party’s biggest donor suing the Labour Party? No, it’s not a joke, but a possibility raised by the Ephraim Hardcastle column in today’s Daily Mail. Apparently, the Unite union is angry that their preferred candidate for the Falkirk seat, Karie Murphy, hasn’t yet been anointed by Labour HQ – and they’re threatening to take their anger to the law courts.

The story of what’s going on in Falkirk is told by Rachel Sylvester (£) and Dan Hodges in separate columns today, and I’d urge you to read both. Suffice to say that it’s a stinking mess. Thanks to the unions agitating in favour of Ms Murphy – and by “agitating,” I mean “fixing the entire selection process” – Labour has had to put the local constituency party on what’s called “special measures”. This means that thousands of trade unionists will be disbarred from voting in the contest, when it eventually happens.

But two particular passages from Sylvester’s and Hodges’ columns are worth pulling out here. From the former:

“I’ve been sent the minutes of the union’s executive council meeting, dated December 3, 2012, which describe the drive in Falkirk as ‘exemplary’. The document boasts of six other candidate selections on which Unite has had a ‘direct impact’ – in Peterborough, Norwich South, Harlow, Hastings, Tamworth and Crewe and Nantwich. ‘This is not an exhaustive list of the better candidates,’ the minutes note; but without the union’s work ‘Progress [the Blairite think-tank] or other right-wing candidates would have been selected.’”

And from the latter:

“Miliband needs to bite the bullet and move [Tom] Watson from his role as Labour’s campaign co-ordinator … Karie Murphy is a senior aide in Tom Watson’s office, and was described in yesterday’s Guardian as his ‘favoured’ candidate for the seat. She is also, of course, the favoured candidate of Len McCluskey, the Unite general secretary. ... McCluskey and Watson are good friends, and former flatmates. This week, The Sunday Times reported that ‘remarkably, Labour’s campaign co-ordinator Tom Watson has defended the actions of Unite in Falkirk’.”

It’s typical of Ed Miliband’s problematic relationship with the unions that both provide the bulk of his party’s financial heft and elevated him to the leadership. Any story that might distance him from them – Unite suing Labour, Len McCluskey attacking party policy, whatever – has a flipside that serves to push them closer together. The result is an awkward equilibrium: the Labour leader is neither close enough to Unite for the Unite bosses’ liking, nor far enough away from them for, one suspects, the public’s tastes.

Of course, all this is electoral ambrosia for the Tories, and they’d be right to feast on it. But a quick word of warning for CCHQ, and one which I’ve sounded before: there’ll be plenty of union members – Tory voters among them – who are appalled at what’s happened in Falkirk. They shouldn’t be tarred with the sins of the Unite leadership, nor alienated as potential voters.