12 July 2013

Falkirk – an unlikely Falklands

It is part of modern British political mythology than Mrs Thatcher only won the 1983 election because of the resurgence in her popularity which followed the favourable outcome of the Falklands campaign in 1982. For David Cameron to be confident of securing a Conservative government after the 2015 election, he needs something similar (to see the size of his problem put Con 40% Lab 35% and LD 13% into Electoral Calculus). For the moment Cameron is having a good try at hanging the trade unions around Miliband’s neck, particularly after the shenanigans concerning Labour’s candidate for the forthcoming Falkirk [by-election] reselection.

Will it do the trick? At PMQs on 3 July Cameron mentioned the Unite union 8 times and Unite’s General Secretary, Len McCluskey, 6 times. On 10 July it was 8 and 2 times respectively, but by then Miliband had taken appropriate action both tactically with regard to Falkirk and more widely in floating the idea of a new relationship between Labour and the unions.  Miliband also moved onto the offensive at PMQs, asking some pointed questions about Tory funding. Unlike the Falklands, union funding and Falkirk do not seem the sort of issues which move substantial numbers of voters’ minds and, moreover, there is a slight risk that Miliband may come out of it well as a strong reformer and avoid being labelled a weak placeman of the unions.

Anyway the whole thing seems just a bit stagey. Of the four volumes of Alastair Campbell’s Diaries, the first, Prelude to Power 1994-1997, concentrates on the task faced by the Leader of the Opposition as an election approaches. It’s also the one which covers the time before Campbell became a civil servant (of sorts) so presumably its content was determined entirely by his judgement rather than being subject to the official protocol which would have applied to the later three. Pugnacious by nature, Campbell had no hesitation in recording the combative relationship which prevailed most of the time between Blair, Labour’s last permanent Leader of the Opposition, and the PM of the day, John Major. But he also mentions the mysterious occasions when Blair disappeared for discussions with the PM. Either Campbell wasn’t told what these were about, or he didn’t choose to write about them. He reports that on one occasion Major threatened to publish private correspondence between himself and Blair – again we are not told what about (page 380).

Almost certainly that’s the way things have always been done and there are good reasons for such arrangements continuing. For example, recently it was reported that Miliband had attended the National Security Committee (not for the first time) in late June for a discussion on Syria and why not? However, perhaps the lesson to be drawn is that governments and oppositions from time to time make common cause without necessarily telling the public or the media all about it. I can’t help wondering whether in this case the cause might turn out to be that of funding political parties out of taxation – the main ones of course.

McCluskey is an interesting man who seems to like SW France. Described by Rachel Sylvester in The Times (£) on 10 July:
Mr McCluskey — an opera buff, who loves attending Glyndebourne and visiting French vineyards (“St Emilion is my favourite wine and such a beautiful village”, he told me when I interviewed him a couple of years ago),
he is a left-winger but with right bank tastes, and tastes which extend beyond red wine according to the Spectator’s Steerpike on 13 July:
The wine waiters at Claridges are taking a keen interest in the investigation into malpractice in Falkirk. And they’re hoping that Unite will be fully exonerated. Len McCluskey likes to celebrate political victories at the hotel bar with a glass of pink champagne. His most recent visit was in July 2011 after Rupert Murdoch’s ‘humblest day of my life’ admission before a Commons select committee. McCluskey toasted the press mogul’s self-lacerating words by downing a bottle of pink fizz with his old mucker Tom Watson. As they say, nothing’s too good for the workers to subsidise.
(Actually it was “most humble day of my life”.)


A few hours after this was originally posted, a typically elegant article by Matthew Parris for today’s The Times appeared on their website, Guess who’s going to pay for politics? You!  He expands on the theme that “The political parties will ask the taxpayer to pay their bills once unions and tycoons have walked away” and that:
The very notion will be massively unpopular. There will have to be a tacit deal between party leaderships not to break ranks and exploit public indignation.
My notion was that the “tacit deal” is rather nearer than he seems to think. Parris is, of course, much better–informed than I am, just as he is a much better writer.


Matthew Taylor was Tony Blair’s Chief Adviser on Political Strategy when he was Prime Minister and then became Chief Executive of the RSA in November 2006. On 9 September he posted on his blog Party funding – the future is out there (no thanks to me). This extract describes a past attempt at a “tacit deal”:
Back in 2006, working for Tony Blair and having previously written a think tank pamphlet on party funding, I was asked to explore a new funding settlement. The precipitating factor was the cash of honours allegations which led to several Labour advisors being arrested and placed on police bail.  
Although the negotiations were behind the scenes, agreeing a basic package with the Conservatives (newly led by David Cameron who was keen to show his statesman-like credentials) proved relatively straightforward. Although historically the Tories have relied much more than Labour on high value donations, Cameron knew how toxic this issue had been for his own Party and how dangerous it could one day become again.  
… The deal we had careful put together was sabotaged by anti-Blair elements in Labour’s ranks. There is little doubt that they did so on the instruction of those around Gordon Brown – who was at the time keen to grasp any stick with which to beat the Prime Minister.


  1. The 'forthcoming Falkirk by-election'? Eric Joyce has no intention of resigning his seat, but says he'll retire at the next general election. Incidentally, like me WI probably remembers late 20th-century by-elections which often had a big impact on the political parties involved. I don't have the figures, but my impression is that in the current parliament by-elections have been less common. Perhaps increased life expectancy is a factor. David Martin

  2. Thank you for your comment, David - and not for the first time. I have made the correction as best as I can at present on an iPad. I think that you may be right in suspecting a hankering after the enlivening by-elections of the past and that life expectancy/younger MPs is to blame!