Falkirk saga plays right into Cameron’s hands

The Falkirk juggernaut rumbles on. David Cheskin/PA Wire/Press Association Images

After the controversies of the past few weeks, the coalition government has launched a review of trade union tactics, to be led by Bruce Carr QC.

The issue of union activities and the relationship between Labour and the unions is going to be used very effectively by Cameron and the Tories in the run-up to the next election, which is currently mooted for 2015.

There is certainly sufficient evidence to warrant detailed scrutiny of what happened at Falkirk the Grangemouth refinery. The Unite union stands accused of vote rigging and Labour is under pressure to review its relationships with unions as a result.

Labour can claim the review announced is politically motivated, but Ed Miliband only has himself to blame. Had Labour published the outcome of its investigation into the Falkirk vote-rigging scandal the problem would probably have gone away. By failing to do so, Miliband ensured suspicion would continue.

The problem he has now is that if the report is published and Unite is vindicated, no one will believe it. Critics will point to a cover-up and accuse Labour of producing a sanitised version. Despite all his posturing and rhetoric since the Labour Party conference in September, Miliband will be seen by many as still being firmly in the pocket of Labour’s trade union paymasters.

From the union side, the protests outside the homes of some Ineos directors organised by Unite may not have been breaking the letter of the law, but probably broke the spirit of it. Those present may have behaved peacefully but any large gathering outside a private residence can be regarded as intimidation by those who live there. The Conservatives will probably claim these are just the sort of bullying tactics at the centre of the Falkirk accusations. It probably won’t be long before draft legislation is drawn up to make such gatherings unlawful.

Union activity has increased dramatically in the last three years, starting with the long-running, high-profile dispute at British Airways and spilling into the public sector over pay, job cuts and pension changes. But the mass protests and co-ordinated days of action associated with these disputes have achieved nothing, the government is still determined to stick firmly to its austerity agenda. Threats of disrupting the supply chains of “bad employers” is unlikely to curry much favour with the British public, particularly if the bad employers are those who fail to bow to union pressure and threats.

The tactics of Ineos may be questionable, but they certainly forced a monumental climb-down by Unite. It doesn’t really matter what Len McCluskey says about the outcome, the union pushed Ineos too far and was made to look foolish in public. One of the first rules of industrial disputes is, don’t underestimate the strength of the other side and how far they are prepared to go to achieve their objectives. At Grangemouth, Unite was outplayed, plain and simple.

After Unite won its Court of Appeal case against the decision to stop strike action by BA cabin crew, the government has been looking for an excuse to take on the unions. With Falkirk, Labour and Unite have now handed it to them on a plate. The government must have been very disappointed with the Court of Appeal’s decision, but the judiciary has a nasty habit of defying the will of politicians. Both Labour and the unions, mainly Unite, have stumbled blindly into David Cameron’s “man-trap” and there was no excuse for them doing so.

Since the publication of the Beecroft report it’s clear that the Conservative side of the coalition government has had the unions in its sights, even if the Liberal Democrats are unenthusiastic.

As if the never-ending problems of Falkirk aren’t enough, Miliband now appears to be at loggerheads with the shadow chancellor, Ed Balls. According to revelations in the Mail on Sunday, the leader of the opposition is frustrated by his inability to control Balls, who refuses to obey Miliband’s instructions and toe the party line. The antagonism between them is laid bare by numerous private e-mails which leave readers in no doubt about the extent of the disagreements.

Could it be that Balls believes that Miliband is finished as leader and is ploughing his own furrow in preparation for a leadership challenge? Having lost out to Miliband in the last leadership contest, Balls must be revelling in the Labour leader’s endless troubles and looking for ways of capitalising on them. One thing’s for sure, David Cameron must be rubbing his hands with glee and he watches Miliband and Labour lurch from one crisis to the next.