Archive for July, 2008

The Tories read Tribune – but do they speak union?

Thursday 31 July 2008

Tribune’s circulation is not massive, so I’m always cheered when I come across a new reader, especially if they read my stories. And my god, someone at Conservative Central Office has been reading them carefully.

On Monday, Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Chris Grayling unveiled a report, Old Labour is back, detailing how, as the Conservatives argue, the Labour Party is under the thumb of, and financially dependent on, trade unions.

There’s no dispute about the second point: according to the Electoral Commission, unions provided Labour with 93% of its funding in the first quarter of this year. But are they really controlling the agenda? Trouble with this report is that, although it was released on the day after Labour’s National Policy Forum wrapped up, it was inevitably compiled beforehand. Many of the union policy demands mentioned in the report – in fact, all the controversial ones like secondary picketing and higher rates of National Insurance for the richer – were refused.

And where did they get the facts from?

“Tribune also reported that unions were calling for workers in other factories should be able to strike if a company closed one factory and other closures were proposed… Tribune reported that the unions were demanding new rules to protect the jobs of workers whose companies are bought out by private equity firms… Tribune reported that the unions were demanding an extension of the role of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority into the construction industry…”

In fact all their Tribune quotes (and they are word for word) are lifted from my 13 June story on Warwick II (see below). Maybe they only read one issue? I doubt it: a little birdie tells me that no less a person than Oliver Letwin has picked up a copy in CCHQ.

I should point out at this point that I don’t trawl the Internet regularly looking to se if my stories have been picked up. I came across this after reading a story somewhere (I forget where) about Tories attacking Labour for being in hock to the unions.

Anyway, if you’re waiting for me to get to the point, relax: I’m just about to. In this same report, the Tories complain about unions getting taxpayers’ money. And indeed they do: last year the Unionlearn fund, which encourages workers to take advantage of learning opportunites at work, was funded by the government to the tune of £18.4 million. There’s also a union modernisation fund, which since its third round last year has started doling out £3 million to various projects which won grants.

Neither of these funds are secrets. People from the TUC are happy to talk about them. And they have benefited unions other than just those who fund the Labour Party, although the report doesn’t make this clear.

Question is: what will the Tories do if/when they get into power? Just abolish these funds as an unpleasant vestige of a time when the governing party channeled taxpayers’ money into unions so it could get it back in affiliation fees? David Cameron likes to talk about harnessing the private and voluntary sectors to help deliver public services and social gain. Why not unions too?

Since March this year, the Tories have had a part-time envoy to the trade union movement, former Labour MEP Richard Balfe. And according to one union boss, he’s already doing the rounds of unions and planning for after the election…

Warwick II: “Bastards! Bastards! Bastards!”

Thursday 17 July 2008

That’s what an angry official close to Labour’s Warwick II policy process spat out to me this week when his pressurised mind drifted onto the subject of the Conservative Party. The Tories believe – perhaps soundly – that they can make political capital out of Labour’s relationship with the unions. But is it fair, objectively speaking? In the week when Labour and the unions came under close scrutiny, and the week before Labour’s National Policy Forum meets in Warwick, it’s worth surveying what’s happened – and asking if Labour’s more scared than it needs to be.

Earlier, the Conservatives cancelled a Parliamentary opposition debate on Warwick II scheduled for Wednesday, and chose to focus on the subject of MPs’ expenses instead. Presumably they though richer pickings were to be found.

That didn’t stop BBC Newsnight from running a report last night on Labour and the unions. Picking up on the local government strikes (see post below), it asked the question: are these strikes intended to put pressure on the government to do the unions’ bidding? There was some suggestive use of visuals, including a list of union demands for Warwick II superimposed on a picture of strikers’ placards.

Putting to one side what the unions are asking for (if you want to find out, pick up a copy of Tribune tomorrow and read my article, plug plug) are this week’s strikes anything to do with it? I can’t see how.

We’ve had local government strikes before, in 2002 and 2006. The 2002 one was twice the size of this year’s – 1.2 million workers out instead of 600,000. But we didn’t have one in 2004 – the time of the last Warwick Agreement. The strikes have been caused by below-inflation pay rises – 2.45 per cent for LG staff this year, when inflation hit 3.8 per cent last month.

So why haven’t Labour come out and said this? Why was the low-profile minister Pat McFadden the only member of the government to show his face on Newsnight to defend Labour’s policy-making process? Labour, the unions and their intermediaries, the Trade Union and Labour Party Liaison Organisation, appear so wary of being tainted by this week’s strikes that they don’t want to even address the question of strikes as undue influence. I failed to get a statement on the subject for my Tribune story this week.

However, they could argue, if they wanted to, that the strikes are a totally separate issue and furthermore that Labour’s policy-making through the National Policy Forum (an elected body) is more democratic than the Tories’. There’s just one catch, which is that what the NPF agrees is not guaranteed to become policy, while the union shopping list will be considered not just by the NPF but No 10 too. It’s therefore likely to have more leverage. Charlie Whelan, a political officer in Britain’s biggest union Unite, is Gordon Brown’s former spin doctors and likely to be influential on topics he chooses to back – just as he was influential in the selection of Labour’s new general secretary.

But to return to the headline of this post, there is anger and tension over the issue of Warwick II. The issue of secondary picketing (already ruled out by Brown) has become a hot potato, although unions say they are only asking for ‘supportive picketing’ by members of the same companies.

So when Brown, union general secretaries and the NPF all meet in Warwick next week it seems they will be on the defensive and trying to prevent more stories in the “right-wing media” (their words) like this one. With the media camped outside their door, they’ll have a hard time of it.