The union influence over Labour is paramount: no need to exaggerate it further

First things first. I don’t want to underestimate the importance of Unite to Labour, and the extent to which it holds sway financially. (And again I’d recommend this column in the Times.)

Unite has given an enormous £11m to Labour since it was formed in 2007 – of which £3.5m was given last year. It has also stood in between the party and financial disaster by agreeing to keep backing it in the future. The party leadership has to listen to the barons – although their influence over policy is still not always clearcut.

But I’m not sure I’m convinced by Eric Pickles’ comments today that Charlie Whelan (Unite’s political officer) is “determined to secure an army of apparatchiks” by placing zillions of union henchmen in safe seats. Calling Whelan “Labour’s new puppet master“, the Tories have tried to prove Unite’s growing grip over Labour by “stitching up dozens of Labour selections” to create a new “militant tendency“.

The Tories cite figures showing that 59 Labour PPCs are members of Unite, equivalent to a quarter of candidates thus far declared. Astonishing. Except that a quarter of existing Labour MPs are members of Unite. In other words; plus ca change.

(This is where I point out that in theory all Labour MPs have to be affiliated to one union or another; context is everything).

The Tories point out that 26 candidates belong to the GMB. 18 belong to Unison. But each of these has about 100 existing MPs; and did so under Tony Blair’s New Labour.

They also say that eight candidates are staff or former staff of Unite. But that doesn’t make them slavering Trotskyites. There are also a handful of other candidates from different unions, such as Lilian Greenwod, Unison’s regional officer, and David Williams, political officer of USDAW. Again, pretty normal for a Labour selection process. The only one to have really caught the eye is Ian Lavery, president of the NUM, whose past has not been uncontroversial.

There are also plenty of inoffensive New Labour candidates.

For example: Stella Creasy, who works for The Scouts Association; John Woodcock, Blairite former special adviser to John Hutton; Rachel Reeves, a former economist from the Bank of England and the British Embassy in Washington.

They probably belong to a union; it would be surprising if they did not.