There could be “blood on the wall” within the Labour brotherhood over plans by the party’s general secretary, Ray Collins, to limit the unions’ involvement in the leadership contest. Their phrase, not mine.
Mr Collins, himself a former T&G official, surprised union general secretaries at a private meeting on Tuesday when he proposed a change to the rules to stop them leafleting their members to tell them who they were supporting. I’m told the barons were “furious” at the “crazy” plan to prevent the unions informing their members what they thought about the contest. Collins has also restricted the spending by each candidate to £155,000.
A meeting of the NEC procedures committee yesterday failed to resolve the leafleting issue but the union leaders are threatening blue murder if Collins gets his way. “I don’t know what he’s playing at,” says one union source.
Some Westminster journalists presume all unions will back Ed Balls en masse on the basis that he is friendly with Charlie Whelan, political officer for Unite. If only things were so simple. That theory is undermined by the internecine rivalries within the movement and within each union.
Until last week some of the unions were leaning towards Jon Cruddas, who in 2007 had Unite’s backing for the deputy leadership.
Now that he is out their backing is still “up for grabs”, in the words of one union man. Up to a point, at least. The biggest unions have ruled out David Miliband because he is too Blairite. They may not support Diane Abbott or John McDonnell because even committed socialists like to back winners. That leaves Balls, Ed Miliband and Andy Burnham as their front-runners.
The internal procedures for union backing are complex and require various dull backroom committees. Unite, for example, took two months before it gave Cruddas its backing three years ago. The first test will be Monday or Tuesday when the CWU agrees which man to back during its Bournemouth annual conference.
Why would Collins, a former union stalwart, want to erode the power of his brotherhood? The most logical explanation is that Labour has recoiled from the Tory pre-election broadside when the likes of Michael Gove and Eric Pickles sought to paint it as a dinosaur-esque party whose strings were entirely controlled by the unions. It’s a potent – albeit flawed – argument and one that Labour might want to rebut very publically.
Back in March the Tories were claiming that Labour was being taken over by the unions; its proof – that many of the incoming MPs were in a union. The only flaw in the argument – all Labour MPs belong to a union.
Meanwhile Peter Kenyon, NEC member, is still furious about the lack of a contest for deputy leader, the post held by Harriet Harman. And I should mention that Labour MPs are angry with Collins for suggesting they need not bother consulting their local members before backing any candidate.