Falkirk West: listen to what the journalists aren’t saying
Lisa Simpson, in an ancient episode of the famous TV series, tells us how to enjoy jazz music: “listen to the notes they’re not playing”. It’s good advice in politics too.
In this context, it’s notable that two words are missing from the story we are being told by the media about Falkirk West: “Dennis Canavan”.
The Labour selection process in this constituency has become the biggest story in British politics this week, and yet no one seems to be mentioning that this particular local branch has had some serious selection issues before.
Canavan was the Member of Parliament for Falkirk West (previously called West Stirlingshire) from 1974-2000. In 1999, when the Scottish Parliament for which he had long campaigned was first formed, he sought nomination to be the Labour candidate in the seat he held at Westminster.
But there was a problem. Dennis Canavan is the kind of charismatic, popular left wing politician that Labour leaders loathe. They didn’t want him in the new Parliament. In the mess that followed, he declared the process for choosing the constituency’s first Labour Holyrood candidate “a rigged selection headed by mediocre stooges”.
So, instead, he stood for the parliament as an independent. And won.
Not only did he win, he won with the biggest majority in the parliament – having stood both in the local constituency and on the regional list that the Holyrood election system uses to ensure proportionality, he effectively won himself two seats – one in his constituency (with 55% of the vote, to Labour’s 19%) and one on the regional list – securing more votes across the whole of Central Scotland than the Lib Dems.
He stood again in 2003, and again won with the biggest majority in the parliament, and then stood down – endorsing the SNP, who now hold the seat (meaning that Labour has never held this seat at Holyrood, despite the London media declaring it ‘safe Labour’ at Westminster). In his retirement, Canavan has taken on the job of chairing the yes campaign in the independence referendum.
Dennis Canavan is one of the legends of Scottish politics. His story is widely known, and, in his referendum role, he’s a regular in the Scottish press. The English media is focussing whatever coverage isn’t devoted to a tennis player from one corner of Stirlingshire to a selection process in the other. And yet they don’t bother to place it in its recent historical context. This isn’t a safe Labour seat, and, more importantly, it is a classic example of a much more normal kind of Labour selection stitch up.
The silence around this is interesting. Because when the media don’t tell us a key element of a story, it’s a good sign that they are trying to turn real life events into a morality tale in which they get to teach us what’s right and wrong.
And for the London media, the fact that London Blairites are frequently guilty of stifling local Labour democracy isn’t the lesson they want us to learn. Because those people are their friends. But when a union does it, it fits into a neat narrative. It teaches the public and ‘Red’ Ed that any link with the unions is dangerous. It forces Labour away from their one remaining left leaning influence.
If the allegations against Unite – my union – in Falkirk West are true, then what they did was wrong. In a perfectly legitimate attempt to get their candidate selected, they seem to have crossed a line. But the failure of the media to mention the history echoes their failure to report on hundreds of selections stitched up, like Canavan’s, by the Labour leadership over the last 20 years.
And that’s the real scandal. For a two decades at least, the Labour leadership have imposed on local parties a drone of spineless and dull MPs with few beliefs and little capacity to express them: a generation of leaders who try to enthuse us not with jazz, but with dirge, and so leave it to the journalists to call the tune. And with journalists, we can be sure they’ll leave out all of the important notes.