UK Politics

Election countdown: 96 weeks to go

There are now 96 weeks to go until the scheduled date of the next UK general election. Here's the state of the race.

Falkirk Special

We are clearing the decks this week to take an in-depth look at the row over candidate selection in Falkirk that has dominated Westminster this week.

It could turn out to be defining moment of Ed Miliband's leadership of the Labour Party and is certain to have a big impact on the 2015 general election. Normal service will resume next week.

So what's the Falkirk row about?

Unite - Labour's biggest union backer - has been accused of packing the Falkirk Labour Party with its own members in an attempt to get its favoured candidate selected.

The union denies claims it was signing up members to the local party without their knowledge. Labour Party HQ stepped in to take over the selection process and has asked police to investigate alleged irregularities in the selection process.

Why is it such a big deal?

Some see it is as a battle for the soul of the Labour Party. Or, at least, who is really in charge - Ed Miliband or the unions who write most of the cheques. If Mr Miliband emerges victorious his critics will find it a lot harder to call him "Red Ed" but it is a high risk strategy as Labour needs Unite, and the other unions, to fund their campaign in 2015.

The state of the polls

Recap for new readers

David Cameron's Conservatives went into coalition with Nick Clegg's Liberal Democrats after the 2010 general election. Ed Miliband replaced Gordon Brown as Labour leader a few months later. The coalition's main priority has been the economy and cutting the UK's deficit. It has hailed progress in getting Britain "back in shape", but Labour says the coalition has been cutting "too far too fast". Meanwhile a new electoral force has emerged in the shape of the UK Independence Party...

Candidate news

All the focus this week has been on Falkirk - but what about the 40 other local Labour selection contests where Unite is backing candidates?

We must stress that there is nothing wrong with this under Labour rules, which state that all of the party's MPs and MEPs must be members of a trade union.

In fact, since 2011, in a little publicised move voted through at party conference all Labour election candidates have to be trade union members.

The unions would argue this is one of the bedrocks of their historic links with the party they founded. Critics would say it is an example of the unions stealthily taking the party over.

But not all Labour candidates have the benefit of union backing, which can come in the form of money and/or votes in selection contests - hence the tactic of packing local parties with union members.

Again nothing wrong with that under the rules, provided the members know they are being signed up.

So far, 47 of 67 candidates selected by Labour for 2015 are linked to unions, with 27 affiliated to Unite through membership, sponsorship or employment.

Unite has been pursuing an explicit strategy of getting what it sees as "working class" candidates selected in winnable seats.

Leaked Unite documents, from December 2012, lists some of the selection contests it directly influenced.

These include: "Lisa Forbes in Peterborough, Clive Lewis, in Norwich South, Suzy Stride in Harlow, Sarah Owen in Hastings, Carol Dean in Tamworth and Adrian Heald in Crewe and Nantwich."

The document singles out Falkirk as "exemplary" for the way in which "we have recruited well over 100 Unite members to the party in a constituency with less than 200 members. 57 came from responses to a text message alone, (followed up face to face). A collective effort locally, but led and inspired by the potential candidate".

Elsewhere this week, Peter Heaton-Jones the Tory candidate hoping to unseat Lib Dem former minister Sir Nick Harvey in North Devon has had visits from party chairman Grant Shapps and Michael Gove in the past six weeks, he tells his local newspaper.

A sign of how seriously the party is taking that particular contest, perhaps.

Council by-elections

A quiet week for council by-elections, with no reports of any county or district poll results. Unless we have missed anything. Do let us know.

What the pundits say

Left-leaning newspapers and blogs have been full of commentators urging Mr Miliband to ramp up his row with Len McCluskey. Something he duly did on Friday.

It is a battle Mr Miliband cannot afford to lose, said Patrick Wintour in Friday's Guardian..

Blairite commentator Martin Kettle, writing in the same newspaper, said: "A Labour party campaigning on an old industrial class-based agenda, with extra powers for unions that are in other respects withering across British life, led by quisling politicians manipulated by union officials who in some cases are old Stalinists, in pursuit of a state-owned economy that would not work and would not be popular, may appeal to a few romantics. But it is an utterly bankrupt strategy."

Rafael Behr, writing in The New Statesman, said the Labour leader must "use this moment to emancipate himself from the machine that won him the job in the first place".

Andrew Pierce, in the Daily Mail, says the turning point was Wednesday's prime minister's questions, when Mr Miliband was "humiliated" by David Cameron.

Afterwards, writes Pierce, "his panicking aides scurried around the Commons tea rooms to try to bolster his crumbling support," adding that "Miliband was visibly shell-shocked" by the PM's attacks on Unite's alleged takeover of the party.

All good news for Mr Cameron, then?

Not necessarily, says Isabel Hardman in The Telegraph, who warns jubilant Tories they should "tread very carefully".

"Conservative MPs in marginal seats with union-backed Labour candidates snapping at their heals fear that unless the Unite attacks become more nuanced, their party will end up offending some of its natural members who are members of trade unions".

Lessons from history: 96 weeks before the 1997 election

This week has seen a contrasting situation to that of June 1995, when John Major's Conservative government had reached crisis point. It was split on the issue of Europe right up to cabinet level, and public disagreements on the subject were raising questions over his ability to unite and lead the party effectively. As a result, on the 22 June that year, Major resigned as party leader while remaining prime minister, and challenged any Conservative who thought they could do a better job to "put up or shut up", and take him on in a leadership contest.

The only challenge came from the Welsh Secretary John Redwood, who went on to secure 27% of the vote. Although this meant that Major retained the Conservative leadership, the tactic failed to unite his party behind him. Internal rows about Europe marred the rest of his premiership and failed to impress the public, who voted the Conservatives out in a landslide defeat in 1997, ushering in Tony Blair as prime minister, and 13 years of opposition for the Conservatives.

Compiled by Alex Hunt, Brian Wheeler and Chris Davies.

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