Tayside and Central Scotland

Labour's Falkirk row becomes national issue for Labour

Falkirk Wheel
Image caption Falkirk, with its canals, is surprisingly green for an industrial town

Labour's acrimonious contest to select a new candidate for a House of Commons seat in central Scotland has prompted one resignation, two suspensions and an almighty row. The BBC's Scotland Correspondent James Cook has been to Falkirk to find out more.

For an industrial town Falkirk is surprisingly green.

Tall trees sway wildly in the strong summer breeze and, down below, water sparkles in the sunlight as it pours over the locks on the Forth and Clyde and Union canals.

It was these waterways which helped Falkirk to grow and prosper.

The town is in the heart of Scotland's old industrial belt: they forged iron and steel here and they still build buses for customers all over the world.

It was a very natural home for the Labour movement but did that movement get too comfortable?

Controversy

Linda Gow, a Labour councillor in the town who used to lead the local council, was the first to raise the alarm about her party's behaviour.

"There appears to be controversy about how members locally were signed up," she says, with some understatement.

"I raised an issue last March with the party, passed it on to the party and other people have since raised issues within a party investigation."

The issue Ms Gow raised was about the process to select a replacement for the sitting MP Eric Joyce as Labour's candidate at the next general election.

The former army officer had been kicked out of the party after a bar brawl at the House of Commons. He had a majority of 7,843 and, in March, a battle for his seat began.

Ms Gow is one of the potential candidates but she denies she was acting out of self-interest when she reported alleged dodgy dealings by her rivals to the party leadership.

Membership fees

The scene for these supposed dirty tricks is a short drive outside Falkirk, a rather smart sandstone building called the Broomhill Inn, decorated by flower baskets of purple and red.

It's here that a group of drinkers were allegedly signed up by the local Labour party chairman, Stevie Deans, their membership fees paid for by the union, Unite, despite the fact that they were not members of the union.

It's claimed that relatives of those present later discovered they had been signed up to join the party without their knowledge. Those making the allegations suggest that more than 100 new members may have been recruited in this manner.

The idea was that they would happily vote for Unite's preferred candidate for the seat, Karie Murphy.

Labour's rule book seems to bear out the claim that this is not allowed. Chapter 2, Clause II, 4.A reads as follows:

"It is an abuse of party rules for one individual or faction to 'buy' party membership for other individuals or groups of individuals who would otherwise be unwilling to pay their own subscriptions."

Office manager

Ms Murphy and Mr Deans have been suspended while the Labour MP Tom Watson, who employs Ms Murphy as his office manager and is a friend of the general secretary of Unite, Len McCluskey, has resigned from his shadow cabinet post as election co-ordinator.

Image caption Tom Watson MP has warned of "selective leaking and smearing" by Labour figures

In his resignation letter he called on his leader Ed Miliband to publish an internal report on the Falkirk scandal, criticising what he called "unattributed shadow cabinet briefings around the mess in Falkirk" and urging "that the report should be published - in full - and the whole truth told as soon as possible so that the record can be made clear."

Brian Capaloff, a Unite member who is on the Labour party executive in Falkirk, also called for the report to be published.

He too claimed there had been "selective leaking and smearing from the Labour party about the alleged actions of Unite" and warned that if the report was kept secret the problems would only get worse for Mr Miliband.

Others wonder why there has been no public statement on the matter from the Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont.

National level

She is lying low although those who brief the media on her behalf are busy insisting that she has been instrumental in sorting out the mess and that she and Mr Miliband are as one in their approach.

Of course the crisis is now about much more than Falkirk and Scotland.

It gets to the heart of who really runs and influences the Labour party at a national level.

It could weaken Ed Miliband, painting him as a union stooge or it could strengthen him by allowing him to assert his authority over the unions.

Much may depend on whether evidence now emerges of dirty tricks in other constituencies.

Several sources within the Labour party mutter darkly that this kind of behaviour is not at all unusual and is not restricted to any particular faction or union.

But whatever happens nationally, some Labour party members here in Falkirk fear the in-fighting could end up handing this seat to the Scottish National Party.

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