Unite’s intervention is a flashback to a darker period in Welsh Labour’s politics

Carolyn Harris (left). Picture by Chris McAndrew (CC BY 3.0). Julie Morgan (right), picture by The National Assembly (CC BY 2.0).

Daran Hill

The contest for the Deputy Leader of Welsh Labour has been the least engaging political fight since last autumn’s “fight” to find the new leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats.

(There’s a bonus point if you can name the runner-up and two bonus points if you can name the winner.)

This new battle has been described to me in various ways: Momentum v non-Momentum; Cardiff v Swansea; AM v MP; OMOV (One Member One Vote) v Electoral College.

What hasn’t been clear is what the new role will actually do. Perhaps that is because it has a job description akin to the Assistant Deputy Leaders of UKIP (they are real posts if you’d care to look them up).

Both Carolyn Harris and Julie Morgan are formidable campaigners – arguably the best Labour have in Wales – with strong track records and proven tenacity. Yet the campaign itself has, probably quite rightly, been targeted internally and very Labour focused.

The consequence is that the rest of us can’t really understand much of what’s going on and even the pundits are struggling to call the result, which is of course perhaps a bit of a blessing.

Stitch up

Yet this week came a cut through moment of the most noxious kind which, while not quite bringing the campaign to the attention of the general public, certainly left me with a sense of déjà vu.

On Tuesday the news broke that three Unite officials were under investigation for appearing in a Julie Morgan endorsement video, when the union itself was backing her opponent.

You know the type of video in question, the sort where the participants look as if they are Al Qaeda hostages sending reassuring messages home to their loved ones.

This troubled principled Labour AMs like Jenny Rathbone but it also Unite further up the food chain, and by Thursday Uncle Len stepped in and returned the hostage to their loved ones.

All of which made me think, without nostalgia, of the contest for Welsh Labour leader two decades ago when Alun Michael beat Rhodri Morgan on the back of the biggest stitch up in modern Welsh politics.

It was a grim period that did little for Labour when they came to the ballot box in 1999. And it was only when Rhodri finally became the leader that the party could emerge from the shadow of a contest in which the union barons had acted like gangsters.

The net effect of the whole business was to make sure that Labour’s electoral machine politics were democratised further and the power of the union chiefs was curtailed by the will of the members.

Anachronistic

So, with this historical context in mind, how could Unite’s intervention influence this contest and Welsh Labour politics more broadly? Here are three thoughts:

1.) There could be a sufficient backlash to the actions of Andy Richard in Unite that it will spur the party on to ditch the Electoral College once this contest is concluded and before the important one for the next First Minister begins (and not a moment too soon on both counts).

2.) This little local difficulty may not impact too much on the overall result, though it is bewilderingly difficult to make that claim with any real certainty. Just because actions are taken by third parties that benefit one campaign over another, it does not mean a candidate has directed that course of action or even endorsed it.

3.) Andy Richards’ clunking intervention is a flashback to a darker time in Welsh Labour politics. It also bears out the hostage analogy because the three people in question are but pawns in a much bigger game of power politics swirling around Welsh Labour.

The question I am left with is whether Richards’ intervention is the sign of a new ferocity by the unions, an anachronistic noise off, or the death rattle of a certain sort of politics within in Welsh Labour.

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