Archive for June, 2008

Strike!

Tuesday 24 June 2008

Daily Mail splashToday’s Daily Mail has a rather sensationalist take on the news that about 850,000 council workers are going on strike.* However, even if you hate the laziness of journalists who talk about a ‘spring of discontent’ followed by a ‘summer of discontent’ and so on (as Kevin Maguire says in this week’s Tribune), you can’t deny that strikes are in the air.

It’s not just the local government workers in the union Unison – although that covers a very wide variety of people, from social workers to dinner ladies, sorry,  catering staff. This autumn sees a strike ballot by civil servants in the PCS union, which could see 280,000 people on strike.

And one union – the GMB – told me yesterday that they want to revise the NHS pay deal for 1.3 million staff – which was only agreed last week.

The reason for all this is, of course, inflation and the rising cost of food, fuel and energy in particular. It is those costs, and not pay rises, which are responsible for the sharp increase in the rate of inflation this year, according to Bank of England governor Mervyn King. He said last week that inflation measured accoriding to the CPI – the government way – will hit 4 per cent this year. Council workers were being offered 2.45 per cent.

The real issue is not, I think, the effect that those strike days will have on local services or the economy, but whether the government’s belt-tightening pay policy will still hold in the face of over 2 million refuseniks. Ideally they would like to see 2 per cent pay rises all round, which – they say – will help bring inflation under control. And it’s true that Mervyn King says inflation will come back under control if only we don’t spend too much or pay ourselves too much.

But the unions won’t stand for that. Unison, which is also party to the NHS pay deal, isn’t threatening to reopen talks just yet, but from what I’m learning they will probably do so in a few months – just as the PCS union starts balloting for strike action.

Be in no doubt – Brown and Darling are being tested, and tested hard. David Cameron is already cheerfully talking about how Labour is in a “stranglehold” because of union funding. We may not be about to witness a winter of discontent like 1978-79, it could bring down the Government all the same.

*Update, 12 July: Actually, only about 600,000 workers are due to go on strike, since only the English, Welsh and Northern Irish Unison members were balloted. Scottish members – who make up the remaining 250,000 – are being balloted seperately.

David Davis and his Labour friends

Saturday 21 June 2008

It wouldn’t do for me to post early; so it is that, eight days after David Davis resigns, I get round to posting on the subject.

Now that it’s clear that Labour wil not stand an opponent against Davis, and Gordon Brown dismisses his re-election campaign as a “stunt”, the question arises of whether the Tory will receive widespread support for his cause. Early signs look to me to spell trouble for the Government.

Is it really a cause he’s fighting for? Tonight an alternative and alluring argument was put to me. It runs like this: Davis wins his seat, proves he takes a moral hard line on important issues unlike wishy-washy David Cameron, waits a few years for Cameron’s political stock to decline and then becomes Tory leader. Interesting, but pure speculation, and contradicted by all the commentators (not that that means it’s wrong).

At any rate, it’s not a view taken by many on the Labour left. The New Statesman – a magazine not quite as inextricably bound to the Labour Party as mine, but still pretty close – has this week criticised the Government in its leader column for being “disrespectful” to the voters of Davis’ Haltemprice and Howden constituency for not putting up a Labour candidate to argue the Government’s case. If a liberal – without Davis’ right-wing record – were put up to argue against the Government, the Statesman says, they would happily support them.

But some Labour MPs are minded to further and straightforwardly support Davis – who insisted in an interview with Labourhome this week that he was campaigning on the sole issue of 42 days. Bob Marshall-Andrews and Ian Gibson – both well-known rebels – have already said so.

This week I spoke to one such MP. Granted, he was one of the awkward squad and you wouldn’t expect him to say anything else, but he said that he predicted many other MPs would come out in support of Davis if Labour didn’t field a candidate, which they’ve now confirmed.

I might be inclined to take that with a pinch of salt – had I not heard another, less rebellious Labour MP, say a similar thing last week. They also praised Davis for his stance.

Finally, consider that Jon Trickett, left-wing Labour MP and chairman of the Tribune board, was forced to resign as parliamentary spokesperson of the moderate left-wing Labour pressure group Compass last week, because he supported the government on 42 days. Jon Cruddas, who is close to Trickett and equally lefty, did the same – but he wasn’t the parliamentary spokesperson of Compass and hasn’t made quite as much noise as Trickett about supporting the government’s line.

So all in all, I believe – and I could be wrong – that a good few Labour MPs will come out in support of Davis. But apart from Gibson and Marshall-Andrews, they haven’t admitted so to the public yet.

Update, 21 June: Forgot to say, my editor has written on this very subject for his lead article in this week’s Tribune.

Labour, the unions and Warwick II

Saturday 14 June 2008

About time I posted – not just because this blog’s been gathering dust, but because I’ve something to shout about. And if trade unions bore you, please bear with me.

I’m chuffed. My unremarkable reporting has landed an inadvertent scoop: to wit, some of the demands that the Labour Party’s affiliated trade unions – who give the party most of its funding – are making in the run-up to “Warwick II”, the successor to the 2004 Warwick Agreement. For the uninitiated (and that was me a few months ago), this was an policy agreement that helped form Labour’s 2005 election manifesto and contained demands on everything from paid holidays to keeping the Royal Mail nationalised to use of ASBOs.

One element of the agreement – equal treatment for both permanent and temporary workers – has only just been implemented, and others are still waiting. But with another election on the horizon, Labour and the unions are preparing to sit down and thrash out another agreement. The agenda was drawn up this week, and that’s what my story was about.

I thought it was an important issue, but I wasn’t expecting Labourhome and Labour Outlook to link to it; much less for Sam Coates, The Times’  redoutable chief political corrspondent (and far more frequent blogger than this one) to link to it and quote a large chunk of my article. Not bad on the week of David Davis’ resignation. Seems nobody else was chasing up their contacts in the unions.

Warwick II is important because it’ll be part of the election manifesto, and although it represents the interests of unions the scope is far from narrow and will affect the lives of just about everybody. For instance, the last agreement contained a commitment to award NHS cleaning contracts on the basis of the standard of work done and not just cost.

Now, above and beyond what I wrote in my story  (and bear in mind that there are many, many details of Warwick II yet to emerge), there are two elephant-in-the-room questions. One: are these union demands being made in return for promises to fund the Labour Party out of its approaching bankruptcy? And two: why have Warwick II (it sounds like a computer game, doesn’t it) when Warwick I isn’t fully delivered yet?

In answer to the first, the union sources I’ve spoken to don’t see it that way. But if they did, you might argue, they wouldn’t want to let on about it. It obviously does the Labour Party no favours to appear to be in thrall to the demands of the unions – apart from anything else, it allows critics and enemies to conjure up parallels with the 1970s and the Winter of Discontent, however far-fetched they may be. However, unions such as the GMB have made clear that they are unhappy with Labour’s policies and will respond with adjustments to funding of the party. Meanwhile, Gordon Brown, who has been forced to hold crisis meetings over Labour’s terrible finances, is planning to meet unions next week to discuss Warwick. I’d be suprised if funding didn’t come up.

Mr Coates on his blog says the unions will not let Labour go bust. Maybe not; but Paul Kenny, general secretary of the GMB union, a major Labour donor, told his members very firmly at his annual conference last week that he wouldn’t allow any union money to pay for Labour’s debts. Other unions such as Unite – Britain’s biggest – will take a softer view, however. On balance I think Coates (who knows a lot more than I do) is right.

As for the second point – what about Warwick I? – the fact is, unions haven’t forgotten. The GMB, again,  put Labour on notice at their conference to honour their commitment to Warwick. Otherwise, a motion said, the union will reconsider its support for the party. But the idea that all 16 unions will demand full implementation of Warwick I at a time when Labour is so vulnerable to the Tories seems unlikely.

Watch this space, and read Tribune – first with the news…