Archive for September, 2008

Reshuffle rumours: more names named

Sunday 28 September 2008

The global financial crisis hasn’t stopped the rumour mill going about Gordon’s forthcoming reshuffle (supposedly scheduled for this Friday), which ministers are no longer bothering to deny judging by their statements to the media (e.g. Geoff “My job is a matter for the PM” Hoon). Here’s some gossip, with my thoughts:

1) Is the reshuffle being delayed because ministers are threatening to resign? Plausible, I think. Make no mistake, there is a plot to unseat Brown, but it’s not easy to see. However, if you went to the Labour Party conference this week, it was easy to overhear journalists talking about it – and maybe even warning ministers about it. That’s what it looked like to me, anyway.

2) Is Work and Pensions Secretary James Purnell threatening to quit rather than take a lesser job? I don’t know. But I would if I were him. His rise from mid-90s councillor to mid-2000s Cabinet minister has been fast and impressive; he’s still only 38, and widely recognised for his charisma and confidence. He looked pretty cheerful and relaxed at conference. Demotion would be both an insult and an injury to this powerful and probably influential minister. In which case he is perhaps more likely than not to stay where he is.

3) Are immigration minister Liam Byrne and Jim Murphy, the minister for Europe, likely to be promoted? Byrne, maybe. But Murphy? If conference chatter is to be believed, Murphy is the one man in the Cabinet Brown can’t trust! He is said to be the Blairite spider at the centre of the rebel web.

4) Will Jon Cruddas get a job? He was reportedly offered one last year and turned it down. But this year there might be a vacancy in the Department for Communities and Local Government. Housing minister Caroline Flint was the talk of conference – and the post-conference train trip – as the next minister to walk. Better, surely, for Brown to push her before she goes. If Flint really is minded to go – and I can’t say for sure, these ARE only rumours – then that would work against the other reported factors (above) which militate against a prompt reshuffle.

5) And what about John Hutton, the business secretary the unions love to hate and the centre-left MPs love to criticise? Rumour has it that he has few friends in the cabinet. But to remove a figure like him – whom one union boss called for to be sacked only this summer – would be seen by many MPs as a) caving in to the unions and b) a full frontal attack on the Blairites. So I think he’s safe.

But with all eyes on the Tories this week, maybe neither side will make a move…

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Panic on the 18:45 to Euston

Thursday 25 September 2008

Funny things happen on trains. Last night, an incident involving a man with a gun near Rugby train station caused police to shut the West Coast main line for a few hours. I was on one of the affected trains, the Virgin 18:45 from Manchester Picadilly to London Euston. I, and many others, were coming back from the Labour Party conference.

As I strolled the platform at Nuneaton station, where our Voyager train was grounded, I was told that Labour rebel MP Siobhain McDonagh was on the train. Then, chatting to some party activists, who else should I see but the slender, blue-suited frame of schools minister Andrew Adonis, champion of academy schools and acolyte of Tony Blair, sipping a can of Heineken (he had three in front of him) and listening to his iPod.

Having learned the cause of our delay, I texted my Tribune colleague Oli Usher to let him know. He texted back : “Maybe he was sent to carry out a contract on mcdonagh”. I informed a Labour activist standing nearby, who promptly informed Adonis. Whether he then told McDonagh or not, I don’t know, but the activist mistakenly said it was “a journalist’s” idea (me).

So if the Blairites are getting jittery, maybe it’s Oli’s fault. More on Labour conference and Blairites later tonight, hopefully.

What happened to James Purnell’s sideburns

Tuesday 23 September 2008

Having so far failed to blog about the Labour Party Conference (which I am at), I’ve decided to kick-start my efforts with something undemanding. I speak of the renowned mutton-chop sideburns of “ultra-Blairite” Work and Pensions Secretary James Purnell, which disappeared earlier this year, and which I have missed ever since. If you ask me, Purnell can pull off having sidies, just as he can get away with a mullet – which he is still growing. He’s got a rather large head and the hair frames it suitably. 

I caught up with Purnell at last night’s Guardian party at the Radisson Hotel, which was absolutely rammed and attended by everybody from rebel MP Siobhain McDonagh – who didn’t seem to hve many people to talk to – to Communication Workers Union general secretary Billy Hayes, and everyone in between. At one point I found a three-way conversation between Alan Rusbridger, Ed Miliband and Ken Livingston’s nemesis Andrew Gilligan. Pity I couldn’t hear what they were saying.

Anyway, having inadvertently caught Purnell’s attention with my trainers (they stuck out in a room full of shiny shoes) I demanded to know: what had happened to his sideburns? The answer surprised me.

While on holiday this summer, it transpires that Purnell grew that most un-Blairite of facial accoutrements, a beard. And when he shaved it off, the sidies went too. A dalliance with Trotskyism? Unlikely. But this will have to go into this week’s Tribune diary. One of our regular readers is Beard Liberation Front leader, Trot and incurable letter-writer Keith Flett. He will be delighted to know.

Labour won’t issue papers to re-nominate Brown… I think

Monday 15 September 2008

Further to stories such as this one, I’m trying to work out how Labour’s National Executive Committee could split on the subject of issuing nomination papers.

One of the people behind this move, Peter Kenyon, is an NEC member and I know him – but he’s a new member, replacing Walter Wolfgang in the ‘Centre-Left Grassroots Alliance’ group of NEC members.

Most if not all of the CLGA members – six people out of 33 – will probably vote to issue the papers; they like to stick to procedure. Others might join in. But I can currently count more definite Brown supporters than rebels. The unions will have the casting vote, and I don’t think any of them will ask for papers. In which case Brown is safe, for now.

Update: Brown is safe all right. Further to a phone chat with Peter, neither he nor his CLGA colleaguesare seeking to have papers distributed at conference – he says that’d be too messy and precipitate. But they want to establish what the rules are, and they are certain the rules are on their side, i.e. the party does have to issue papers every year, like it or not.

Cruddas vs. Purnell, again

Monday 15 September 2008

I completely forgot to write below about what it was that prompted me to blog about it in the first place…

What struck me about the choice turned up by the Populus/Times poll is that it reminds me of a story I did for Tribune in May this year. Just after Labour’s disastrous performance in the local elections, two leading MPs were setting out their vision for how Labour could weather the storm. Both made public speeches to that effect; both insisted Labour could still win. Only one demanded a change of direction. It seemed at the time like a duel between the two of them.

Guess who…

The story isn’t available on the Tribune website, but here are some quotes from it, which I noted at the time:

“An open society has a foundation stone. It has an original idea without which the rest is just verbiage. That idea is a fair chance… And that means tackling inequality.

“The outrage we feel at the waste of lives lived in poverty is what links the Labour Party of 2008 with the Labour Party of 1908.”

“For me, this is no 1995. In 1995 it was the government itself that had caused the problem… People do not [now] blame the government for creating the situation.” (Purnell)

And:

“There’s a fundamental rupture between us and traditional working class Labour voters. Our coalition has disintegrated but whole flanks of our party leadership deny this.” (Cruddas)

Cruddas vs. Purnell

Saturday 13 September 2008

There’s been some surprise about the result of a Populus poll commissioned by The Times in which a sample of 20 voters said the most attractive candidates for Labour leader seemed to be either Jon Cruddas or James Purnell.

But the pairing of these two hasn’t come out of nowhere. Cruddas – a member of the left-of-centre Compass group, and Purnell, the Work and Pensions Secretary whom my editor calls a Blairite, have little in common ideologically. You won’t hear Purnell calling for a “lurch to the centre-left” as Cruddas did. But they both came across to the panel as honest and to the point.

That result is not anomalous. Both of them are articulate, persuasive public speakers – in my current view, Purnell has the edge here – and both have the knack of making people feel they, the speakers, empathise with them. I once watched Purnell address the Fabian Society. Despite arguably being not as lefty as the Fabians*, he managed to come across not only as someone who speaks authoritatively, but as someone who is very much on his audience’s side.

Both Cruddas and Purnell were talked of as leadership material before Miliband came along with that Guardian article. This poll, I believe, simply acknowledges that they’re not going away.

*That’s to say, the Fabians are more likely to call for statist solutions, such as state provision of essential services instead of farming them out to private contractors (as Purnell announced this year with welfare to work), and for progressive taxation, such as a higher level of income tax for the richest. They have also this year called for NHS presription charges to be abolished.

Tories: Unions will ‘get things’ if they co-operate

Saturday 13 September 2008
Richard Balfe

Richard Balfe

So, the big boys have moved onto my patch. Once upon a time, nobody was very interested in talking to Richard Balfe, the former Labour MEP and Tory defector who was approached by David Cameron last year about becoming an envoy to the trade union movement. The same movement part of which bankrolls the Labour Party. I got in touch with him this summer, when his name still graced few pages.

We had a fairly unexciting off-the-record chat, but he said a few notable things which are now on the record:

1) The Tories are considering whether to continue government subsidy to unions, in the form of the Union Modernisation Fund – which is used to help unions restructure and modernise – and funding of Unionlearn, a scheme which encourages employees to take advantage of workplace learning opportunities.

2) A lot of unions are talking to him. Hardly surprising really; there are over 100 in the country and only 16 actively suppport the Labour Party. Two who say they haven’t agreed to meet Balfe – Unite and UCATT – are Labour-affiliated.

Then came the TUC Congress, and now look. Sam Coates of The Times devoted a lengthy piece to Mr Balfe and Iain Dale in the Telegraph discussed why the Tories are courting the unions (and his answer – that they’re key swing voters, all six million of them – does make sense). What makes this a good story is that Labour will evaporate without union money and organisation.

So what is going on right now?

I wrote a story in this week’s Tribune on the subject. The headline is admittedly misleading; it should really say the unions say they’re not co-operating. For example. Andrew Murray, a Unite communications officer, is quoted by The Times as saying that “We are a Labour-affiliated union and a meeting would be a mistake and none of our members would want or expect one”.

Hmm. Murray himself is no friend of Labour – one trade unionist who knows him calls him an “unreconstructed Stalinist” – and in any case, Balfe tells me that it’s only the T&G section of Unite, headed by joint general secretary Tony Woodley, that won’t talk to him. The Amicus section has spoken to him.

The truth is that Balfe has had considerable success in speaking to union bosses who call themselves dyed-in-the-wool Labour supporters. That doesn’t mean they’re about to stop supporting Labour. They will continue to fund it. As one senior union official recently told me of the government: “They may be arseholes, but they’re our arseholes”.

But they are all writing insurance policies for after the election, which no Labour-supporting union expects them to win.

And as far as union subsidy goes, the prospects look good for them. Balfe happily told me on the record that the chair of Unionlearn, Billy Hayes, “has co-operated. He will get things. Tony Woodley has not.” If that’s true, and not an attempt at divide and rule, it’s pretty serious. Billy Hayes is the general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, which has over 200,000 members and which has given £4.6 million in donations to Labour since 2001.

Many union members already vote Tory – about a third of Unite members do, and Unite is one of the most loyal Labour unions. Richard Balfe is not going to change how people vote- that’s Cameron’s job. But he can encourage the more amenable unions to reduce their support for Labour. That way, he tells me, the party can go back to core Labour values – and to political irrelevance.

Expect Labour to fight back. But for now, the Tories have the initiative – and the media spotlight.

Brown and the TUC, again

Sunday 7 September 2008

Further to my post below, David Hencke of the Guardian has kindly clarified that Gordon Brown is not addressing the TUC congress, but he is speaking at the annual dinner for the TUC’s great and good, apparently on Monday evening.

I don’t have time to check (sorry, shoddy I know but this is blogging not proper journalism), but I think this is the first year since 1997 that Brown hasn’t addressed the TUC – he did of course address it last year. That in itself is rather shocking if it is so, and only serves to point to his current weakness and the fact he’d probably get a lukewarm reception at best. Even the super-loyal super-union Unite’s support for Brown is getting lukewarm.

P.S. Thanks for the link, LabourMatters, but I’m a bloke! René is a boy’s name, Renée a girl’s, like Zellweger.

Is Gordon Brown speaking to the TUC congress or not?

Saturday 6 September 2008

The TUC’s programme published on 29 August (not publicly available) says that the most senior member of the government to address their congress will be Alistair Darling, on Tuesday afternoon. But David Hencke in today’s Guardian mentioned, quite casually, that Brown would address it too. As did Vikki Miller on the Telegraph website, who specifically says Brown is speaking on Monday. Who’s right?

TUC: He’s not speaking.

Hencke: No answer, yet.

No. 10: The PM’s schedule for next week hasn’t been announced yet.

Watch this space…

What do we want? More pay! When do we want it? Er…

Friday 5 September 2008
Djinn76, Flickr

Pic credit: Djinn76, Flickr

For union leaders meeting at next week’s TUC Congress in Brighton next week, the question won’t be whether to take strike action, but when. Or more precisely: whether to do it at the same time as each other.

There’s no dispute among them that the pay deals being offered to public sector workers are even worse than last year’s. The NHS pay deal, one of the more generous ones, offers eight per cent over three years. But inflation is creeping towards 5 per cent at the government’s CPI measure, and more at the RPI measure unions prefer to use.

Co-ordinated strike action theoretically raises the possiblity of Winter-of-Discontent-style chaos, with schools closed, rubbish piling up, Jobcentres Plus locked and so on. One newspaper last week suggested it was a distinct possibility. Is it?

Well… not really. For a number of reasons:

1) For starters, you would need to pass a motion at the congress which actually spelt out that the unions would take strike action together, and that the TUC would co-ordinate it. Going on strike is a very bureaucratic process nowadays, and they’d need help. There are several motions from different unions along these lines currently on the agenda, which will be composited into one motion. But while some, like the Public and Commerical Services Union, want joint strike action, others like Unison just call it ‘action’. The difference is more than literary. Last year’s TUC also voted for co-ordinated action, but it didn’t lead to anything much.

2) The TUC leadership, who could well sway the final wording, would need to be persuaded that the TUC should co-ordinate such action. I’m not an expert on such matters, so feel free to correct me, but as I understand it, the TUC has not recently (say in the last five years) tried to co-ordinate industrial action between unions. And I am told that they wouldn’t want to. Certainly it is the more militant unions like the PCS, the Prison Officers Association and the National Union of Teachers that seem to genuinely want co-ordinated action. And the TUC is always a lot tamer than this lot.

3) All the public sector unions would have to want it. The Observer article I link to above quotes a Unison spokesperson. I know who it was, and having spoken to them, I understand what they’re saying but it doesn’t amount to a likely chance of joint strike action. Unison voted at its conference this year for such action but the leadership hasn’t actually shown any willingness so far to do it. A Unison shop steward I interviewed this week basically said they didn’t want to.

I can’t predict what’ll happen next week, but my best guess is lots of angry speeches about low pay vs. fat cat salaries, followed a public sector pay motion just vague enough to avoid concerted inter-union action on it. That won’t stop minor joint action between, say, PCS and NUT. But the TV news offices don’t need to dust off cans of film from 1978-79 just yet.

Update: Jon Rogers of Unison has this on the public sector pay composite motion.

Update 2, Friday 5 September: I’ve just heard from a source that the TUC has composited a motion which will call quite strongly for co-ordinated strike action. I don’t have any more details just yet. This is a victory for the more militant NUT/PCS/UCU wing of the TUC.