Do unions like Unite want Labour to win the next election? A fair few people, including a number of Labourites, have been asking this question since the union announced its backing for Jeremy Corbyn at the weekend, but it’s a something that those involved in the election campaign were asking as polling day approached, too, for slightly different reasons.
The party found that it had a problem with Ukip during the election campaign - and some wise figures like John Healey had been urging the leadership to get to grips with Nigel Farage’s party long before election chiefs actually did do anything. While there is now a general acceptance among the leadership candidates that Labour must work at winning back voters from Ukip, none of them have yet addressed one of the ways some of those who support their party are making this more difficult.
Anyone who followed Ukip around in the election campaign quickly became familiar with the crowd of angry protesters who popped up outside every town hall where Nigel Farage was speaking, and tried to follow him around, chanting insults and waving placards.
Owen Bennett’s book, Following Farage, contains a number of accounts of encounters between Ukippers and the protesters, including an amusing conversation in which the journalist tried to find out what in particular made some activists in Doncaster think made Ukip a racist party, and ended up getting insulted himself. The Ukip leader often changed venues for meetings and photo calls at the last minute because protesters had worked out where he would be and were congregating outside.
Now, Farage is a big man and can cope with a crowd of angry trade unionists. But what Labourites spotted was that Labour-ish voters who were tempted by Ukip in those seats weren’t quite so comfortable with these protests. They felt that they were also being labelled racists and fascist scum and the like by the angry protesters who had been bussed in from another city to shout on the streets of their town. ‘Surprise, surprise, if you label and marginalise these voters, the vast majority of which are sound citizens, don’t be surprised if they vote for Ukip with even greater certainty in future,’ says one Labourite, witheringly.
Some of these protesters did seem so remarkably confident that they were right and everyone around them was wrong that they took to hurling insults at those who weren’t even connected to the Farage operation. I had the slightly surreal experience of driving around and around outside the Grimsby town hall with Joey Essex during the campaign, waiting for Farage to turn up to a campaign event there. Essex was clearly not a member of Ukip’s campaign team, but still the protesters, some of them waving Unite flags, others clutching banners promoting the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (which stood its own candidates in the General Election), decided it would be a good plan to hurl insults at him. ‘What’s the time, Joey?’ they jeered, in reference to the fact that the TV star couldn’t read analogue clocks.
Perhaps they had read some ground-breaking research revealing that sneering at people is a better way to give the impression you are reasonable and worth listening to than showing humility and empathy by listening to what those voters have to say. But the rent-a-crowd of protesters who followed Farage around irritated those who felt that a better way of working in those Ukip-vulnerable seats was to talk to the voters there, not turn up in their town and shout at people. A novel idea, I know.
Given some of these activists were operating under the banners of trade unions affiliated to the Labour party, the party needs to work out what it can do to persuade its own supporters to lay off the rent-a-mob protests in future - if indeed it agrees with those who I spoke to for this piece who think such events were counterproductive.
The way Unite has been behaving in the Labour leadership contest either shows that it is now quite happy to abandon pragmatism for protest politics by supporting Corbyn, or that it is being deeply cunning by not supporting Andy Burnham, who could do without being branded the ‘union candidate’, as its first choice. But the Ukip protests do seem to fit the former description: unless Unite thinks that further alienating voters who feel a bit left behind by Labour is a cunning plan, too.