Stitch-up politics must be rejected and defeated
Stitch-up politics has returned to Wales – and reprehensible though that certainly is, it has livened up what was a dull Labour leadership contest.
The goings-on at a committee meeting held by Unite the other day to decide which leadership candidate the nation’s second largest trade union would nominate may prove to be a turning point in this internal party election.
Vaughan Gething seems complicit in a badly handled manoeuvre that saw his opponent Jeremy Miles deprived of the chance to win Unite’s nomination.
Miles was disqualified because he had never been a lay union official and the nomination was handed by default to Gething. But before examining the political implications of what happened, it’s worth looking more closely at the Unite rule that was used as a justification for excluding Miles.
As Miles himself has pointed out, the existence of the rule in question was not declared when he was invited by Unite to attend and participate in the nomination hustings. Neither was it referred to during the hustings. And after the hustings concluded, the leadership of Unite failed to mention it to him. That’s all suspicious in itself.
But looking at the incomplete documentation relating to the rule that is publicly available, I do not believe that it was applied legitimately in these circumstances.
Until last July, Clause 22.10 of the Unite rulebook read: “The Union shall maintain a panel of members wishing to seek political office including becoming [a] member of the UK, Scottish, Welsh Assembly and European Parliaments and any such other public bodies as the Executive Council may decide. The composition, including the process and the qualifications required to become a member of the panel, shall be determined by the Executive Council.”
The rule was clearly out of date, using the old name of the Senedd and referring to the European Parliament as if the UK was still an EU member state. It needed to be amended.
Only the agenda for a Unite Rules Conference that took place in Brighton in July 2023 is publicly available on the internet. An amendment to Clause 22.10 was to be moved by the union’s Manchester Public Services and Local Government Branch as follows: “Delete the second sentence and replace with: The Union will only formally endorse candidates who have held elected lay office as representatives of workers. Unite the Union Representatives will be given priority. The composition, including the process required to become a member of the panel, shall be determined by the Executive Council.”
From the decision taken to disqualify Miles, it seems safe to assume that the amendment was passed – even though the updated version of the rulebook hasn’t yet been published.
But does the amended rule justify the exclusion of Miles? My reading of it is that it doesn’t. The rule refers to a panel of members comprising those “wishing to seek political office including becoming [a] member of the UK, Scottish, Welsh Assembly and European Parliaments and any such other public bodies as the Executive Council may decide”. But Miles isn’t “wishing to become a member” of the Senedd. He already is one. He was asking the union to support his bid to become leader of Welsh Labour – something not explicitly covered by the rule.
I believe that the rule was used to create a spurious justification for excluding Miles from the process when it became clear that he was likely to win the committee vote. The logical inference to be drawn is that the process was controlled by supporters of Gething who were determined to ensure that he won the nomination. Why otherwise was the hustings allowed to proceed and proceedings only halted when a vote was due to take place?
It’s clear that this was a stitch-up – and in my opinion it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Gething was complicit in what happened. It would have been possible for him to decline the nomination, saying he did not wish to profit from the dubious decision to disqualify Miles. But he didn’t do so. Instead his campaign put out a statement which said: “We’re proud and honoured to welcome Unite’s nomination for Vaughan Gething for Welsh Labour leader and First Minister of Wales.”
No wonder Cardiff North MS Julie Morgan posted a message on social media saying: “It is unbelievable that something like this has happened again. The same as 25 years ago.” She was referring, of course, to events that occurred when her late husband Rhodri Morgan was stitched up and deprived unfairly of victory when he stood for the leadership of Welsh Labour against Alun Michael during the run-up to Wales’ first devolved election in 1999.
I was very much involved as a journalist in covering the stitch-up which occurred at that time. For whatever reason – and a number have been suggested – Tony Blair did not want Rhodri Morgan to become the leader of Welsh Labour. Peter Hain, who later became Secretary of State for Wales, was tasked with ensuring that Morgan did not win. He became campaign manager for Cardiff South and Penarth MP Alun Michael, the Blair loyalist who was the Prime Minister’s choice for the leadership.
A shrewd operator, Hain was able to exploit the unusual voting system then in place for the election of a Welsh Labour leader. Under the so-called electoral college system, one third of the votes went to MPs and candidates for the National Assembly, another third to trade unions and other affiliated groups, and the remaining third to ordinary party members. While it was regarded as highly likely that Morgan would win quite decisively the party members’ section of the ballot, the other two sections were less clearcut.
Alun Michael’s team wanted as many of his supporters as possible installed as Assembly candidates even in unwinnable seats so they could use their “super vote” to back him in the leadership election. One such candidate was Vaughan Gething, who joined Alun Michael on Labour’s Mid and West Wales regional list. While as expected Gething didn’t win a seat in the Assembly, he subsequently got a job working for Lorraine Barrett, who had worked for Alun Michael in his constituency office and was elected as an Assembly Member for the same seat.
Much of Hain’s attention was taken up in securing support for Alin Michael from the trade unions. Of the big unions, only Unison held a ballot of its members to see which candidate it would support. Most Unison members backed Rhodri Morgan.
Some of the other unions used undemocratic tactics to ensure Alun Michael won their votes. This usually entailed ensuring that the bulk of union members had no say and exerting pressure on small numbers of people who sat on the committee or panel making the decision to back Michael. Grassroots members, who predominantly supported Morgan, were frustrated when little more than a handful of individuals gifted thousands of union votes to Michael.
There was much speculation at the time about dodgy goings-on. In the case of one union there were allegations that the result was falsified. There were calls for the relevant documentation to be verified independently, but that never happened and in due course the paper work was destroyed. Alun Michael was declared the winner and Labour went on to win more seats than any other party at the first Assembly election. But Plaid Cymru unexpectedly seized a number of constituencies that had been expected to go Labour, which failed to win the overall majority it had been seeking.
As things turned out, Alun Michael lasted less than a year as the Assembly’s inaugural First Secretary – the role later called First Minister – and Rhodri Morgan then got the job he should have had in the first place.
But the stitch-up undoubtedly caused much bitterness and wrong-footed devolution from the outset.
A quarter of a century later, we have now witnessed another stitch-up, albeit on a smaller and hopefully less effective scale. Members of Unite who belong to the Labour Party will be able to vote for their leadership candidate of choice, but they will undoubtedly receive a recommendation from their union that they vote for Vaughan Gething.
Wales can do without political stitch-ups of this kind. Gething’s complicity in the exclusion of Miles – and his willingness to turn a blind eye to the clear abuse of process that occurred – confirms for me that he does not deserve to become First Minister.
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