Not for the first time, local politics hereabouts take me into inexplicable corners. Take Unite, the union. As most people will realise, it is a national union, generally dealing with national issues. However, Unite, under its last two general secretaries, has taken an inordinate interest in Merseyside politics. Thirty-five years ago, the then TGWU official – Len McCluskey – spent a lot of his time stirring up difficulties for both his union and for the Labour Party. Some people called this militancy; others described it as trouble making. Thus, it should come as no surprise to find that the same culture still exists within the union.
The regional executive of the union met this week, to consider, amongst other things, Unite’s position on the Labour candidates for the Liverpool mayoralty. Two other unions, Unison and Usdaw, had already made clear their support for Cllr Wendy Simon, a former Unison official. The Unite regional politbureau decided not to support anyone, but to remain neutral. This was the cue for an almighty online executive row, with the union hierarchy demanding support for Cllr Anna Rothery. It will be of more than passing interest how this will be resolved. It does appear, however, that vested interests within the Labour movement are lining up in a self-defined “left/right” battle. It is telling that Cllr Anne O’Byrne appears to hold no attraction, at least for the brothers and sisters of the union movement.
There is nothing new in the involvement of trade unions in the Labour Party’s selection processes at all levels. Sometimes it has been a virtuous phenomenon, saving the Labour Party from itself and its inclination towards fratricidal civil war. On other occasions, union activity – at least at a local level – has been part of the problem rather than the answer. Such was the case in the 1980s when Len McCluskey’s machinations in the north west were a headache for the Labour Party. However, what strikes me now is the way in which now the national level of Unite should be so involved in the current difficulties being experienced in Liverpool City Council.
This possibly relates to the controversy surrounding a building project in (of all places) Birmingham. This was the project originally said to cost £7m which became one costing £96m. Needless to say, this is a matter of great interest to members of Unite. What interests those looking at the financial affairs of Liverpool City Council, is the appointment of a Liverpool company – the Flanagan Group – as main contractors. It appears that at an early stage in this project, Unite had refused to appoint a main contractor approved by Birmingham City Council, insisting on the appointment of the Flanagan Group.
The Flanagan Group is known to Liverpool Council watchers because its principal was arrested along with Mayor Anderson and others in the police anti-corruption drive, Operation Aloft. Why would such a relatively small and diverse company figure in at least two controversial development cases? After all, this company was multi-faceted, with a variety of other developments over time in Liverpool, from the Sir Thomas Hotel to the Newz Bar. The Birmingham development was on a totally different scale.
To understand this, one needs to go back to Len McCluskey’s predecessor, Tony Woodley, based in the Wirral. He struck a deal with a very small Wirral-based company called Purple Apple. After a series of amalgamations of unions, the expanding TGWU/Unite super union had surplus buildings and land in its property portfolio, in need of rationalisation and/or repair. This led to a three way, loose partnership, with Purple Apple assessing the properties and Flanagan’s doing any work required (just look at the renewal of Jack Jones’s house in Islington).
Even as Woodley retired as general secretary (and McCluskey took his place), the tidy arrangement continued. McCluskey created a post-retirement job for Woodley, looking after the property portfolio of Unite. Purple Apple and Flanagans continued to sell their services to the union, liaising through Woodley, now in the House of Lords!. At the same time, Purple Apple and Flanagans were making large donations to Liverpool Labour Party, as was Unite. It seems as if everyone remained happy with their cosy arrangements until the police in Liverpool and Unite’s national executive, began to stick their noses in. Where the recent controversy will lead us, we can only hazard a guess. I am sure, however, that there is much more yet to be revealed.