Archive for October, 2008

Will Sir Humphrey join his comrades?

Wednesday 29 October 2008


Alistair Darling speaks on public sector pay at the TUC, 9 September 2008. One month later, his staff look set to go on strike

Alistair Darling speaks on public sector pay at the TUC, 9 September 2008. One month later, his staff look set to go on strike

The news that over 200,000 civil servants in the Public and Commercial Services Union have voted for a programme of industrial action, beginning with a one-day strike on November 10, is not very exciting in itself; you could see a mile off how they were going to vote. What is interesting is the possibility it throws up of (all together now) co-ordinated strike action.


When the PCS goes out on a one-day strike on November 10, they will be on their own. No other union has timetabled action for that day. But the series of strikes targeting different government departments and agencies (Jobcentres Plus, Revenue and Customs, HM Coastguard, Cabinet Office, etc) could be a different story.

Unite is currently balloting prison service staff and NHS staff (separately) over pay, while the National Union of Teachers is also conducting a strike ballot. All could lead to strikes this autumn – and Unite have specifically called for co-ordination with a prison strike. Unison, despite being the biggest public sector union, are out of the quation because they went to arbitration in local government (as I predicted here).

They’d better hurry up though. The TUC congress held the prospect of a national “day of action”, with lots of different unions taking part. But that was over a month ago, and there’s a statutory minimum notice period for strike action. (Actually we sort of had one of those, but it was limited to Scotland and only affected 150,000 people in Unison – the other unions just sent reps who marched around. )

Officials at PCS and NUT have already indicated to me that they’re up for co-ordinating.  Unite, however, is a slightly different matter. The super-union does not work closely with the other two, who are considerably smaller, not affiliated to the Labour Party and always more strident in their calls for action.

Or as a well-placed Unite source told me today: “They’re not the unions that Unite has traditionally worked most closely with… If you look at PCS, hey’ve made it their strategy to do that [co-ordinate action]. Unite’s not so focused on it.

“But clearly, we have been co-ordinating action with other unions.” Well, maybe. But not with PCS and NUT – not this year anyway. A lot of it will come down to the work of full-time union officials. And they can be temperamental. That’s not an opinion, it’s a fact borne out by the rift in Unite which has been exacerbated by full-time officials being worried about their positions.

As at the TUC, a lot of union rank-and-file – including in Unite – want to see co-ordinated action, but it’s not about to happen. It takes a lot of work, plus the will at the top to see it through.  Unite’s executive hasn’t seriously discussed the issue yet, and unless they really push for it, I don’t see a major co-ordinated strike happening this year. In which case, some of that optimism expressed by shop stewards at the TUC will have been in vain. But we’ll see.


Mandy’s back, and the trouble begins…

Tuesday 21 October 2008

Trouble for the government’s press officers, that is. Within two weeks of being named as the new (deep breath) Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, Lord Mandelson is making waves. I pointed out in a previous post that the unions don’t like him; for proof, we haven’t had long to wait.

On Monday the Financial Times ran a story saying that in an interview for them, Mandelson had backed part-privatisation of Royal Mail. Unions and some MPs predictably upset.

On the same day, Downing Street said Mandelson was reviewing the government’s promise to extend the right to flexible working to parents of children up to age 16 (up from six at present).

Then today at his inaugural grilling by the BERR select committee, the noble Lord said he hadn’t come to a decision on either point. What’s more, he hadn’t given an interview to the FT “in the last 72 hours”. Unions are already worried about the threat to Royal Mail’s future posed, they think, by the Hooper review (see my story here.)

Puzzled? You’re not alone. Committee chairman Peter Luff wrapped up by telling Mandelson that he was “more confused than I began” over Royal Mail’s future.

I sat in on that committee hearing. It was very cordial, but you couldn’t get over the feeling that MPs of all parties wanted to know what Mandelson thought about a myriad of subjects – and on the above two points, he gave nothing away. He even praised the TUC’s head of equality and employment rights, Sarah Veale, for her contribution to the flexible working debate on this morning’s Today programme (her contribution was to say he was wrong).

To get to the point. What links both issues is they were both supposedly sealed at Labour’s National Policy Forum in Warwick(yes, it always comes back to that with me. Sorry) which agreed that Royal Mail would be kept public and that fllexible working would be extended. And Warwick II was the first agreement of its kind, because there was no limit on the amount of suggested policy amendments constituency parties and unions could submit. It was a test drive for a new process.

Breaking both those policy commitments a this stage will not only annoy a few MPs and provoke grumbling from unions; it might lead them to decide that the policy making process they signed up to at Warwick doesn’t work. I can tell you that questions about the issue of Royal Mail are currently being asked at the highest fraternal level. Such response as there has been has been guarded, but that’s not the last of it.

Make no mistake, Mandelson is back, and as beguiling as ever, even for trade union anoraks like me…

Immigration: Chastity belts not yet needed

Tuesday 21 October 2008

“In 50 years, I’ll be fucking dead,” the Labour ex-minister snorted to me today. Why did they say that? Because that’s how long they reckon, if current trends continue, it would  take for the UK population to reach 70 million – precisely the figure plucked out (out of thin air, opponents say) by immigration minister Phil Woolas in his somewhat controversial Times interview. Anyone who read it might – might – be forgiven for thinking that there was a risk of that happening in the next few years.

Woolas appears now to have backpedalled. But the 50-year comment was a sharp wake-up call for journalists covering the immigration debate. In 50 years the country could be radically different. Wars may have started and stopped; natural disasters could have struck; floods could have claimed part of the country (or another country).

And meanwhile, the rate of immigration could have gone down – or up. In short, making long-term predictions about population is a mug’s game. So the warning of Keith Vaz, chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee, that policing such a population limit might require us to wear chastity belts, need not concern us unduly.

Woolas says in his interview that there’s a need to deal with the concerns of people who think that immigrants re getting unfair benefits, like being given £1 million council houses, and are causing unemployment. Question is whether talking about apparently hypothetical and, dare I say, meaningless population figures is the way to do that.

P.S. The ex-minister actually supported most of what Woolas said in his interview.

Trouble at Unite – Part I

Friday 17 October 2008
Derek Simpson, joint general secretary of Unite (Amicus section)

Derek Simpson, joint general secretary of Unite (Amicus section)

Hello, I’m back. Sorry I haven’t been blogging for, well, ages – there’s no particular reason (it’s not because I’m tearing my hair out over Tribune’s financial problems, frinstance), I’ve just been crap and lazy. On we go.

I resume this blog with an ambitious two- or even three-part series on the problems facing Unite, Britain’s biggest trade union and biggest single donor to the Labour Party. Those of you who aren’t trade union officials, or political or industrial hacks, may not yet be aware that cracks are emerging in the two-million-person union founded last year – cracks so wide that it might yet split apart; and even if it doesn’t, the result could affect national politics. And it’s not just because of the well-rehearsed stories that joint general secretaries Derek Simpson (Amicus) and Tony Woodley (T&G) hate each other. This blog is for the less well-informed, but hopefully there’ll be something for the hacks.

I’ve done an article for tomorrow’s Tribune, but couldn’t fit it all in. Read more below…

In my last post but one, I told you of exciting news: the T&G section of Unite was putting out a DVD to celebrate/commemorate its final disappearance into history, scheduled to take place on 1 November this year with the adoption of a joint rule book for both sections. A launch party was announced and invitations sent out.

Then what happened? The party, and the DVD release, was cancelled. The excuse privately given was that Andrew Murray (see below), a Unite official and one of Woodley’s right-hand men, had a funeral to go to. People in the know do not give that much credence. They don’t have to look far for an alternative theory.

The day before, on 9 October, Unite’s joint executive council held a meeting. Officials had drafted some resolutions, which were considered and voted on as a whole. The meeting voted to postpone the adoption of the new rule book until May 2009, and to hold an election for Derek Simpson’s job, while suspending the part of the current Amicus rule book under which he would be too old (64) to stand for election.

Why did they do this? Because Simpson had been challenged by Unite member Jerry Hicks (see below)over his plans – enshrined in that new rule book – to stay in office until the end of next year, by which time he’ll be 66 and over retirement age. In fact, Hicks wants to run against Simpson in the lection, and promises to be radically different if elected.As they admitted to me, Unite officials knew that Hicks’ complaint to the certification officer, a government ombudsman, was likely to be upheld, so they sidestepped it with a new election.

Still with me? Because this is where it starts to get personal.

In the election campaign, which gets underway next week with the release of nomintion forms, Hicks is likely to point out that what he is doing – challenging the GS and using the technicality of his age – is exactly what Simpson did in 2002 when he challenged then Amicus joint general secretary Sir Ken Jackson, and won. He’s also likely to point out that Simpson was only elected by the AEEU half of Amicus, taking over the whole union when the other JGS, Roger Lyons, stepped down. (Unions are always merging).

Then there’s the costs Simpson has run up: perfect ammunition for an underdog candidate. Simpson earned £127,000 last year in salaries and benefits, and has the use of a car and mobile phone. He also is said to have the use of a house on which he pays a “peppercorn rent”. “The lifestyle of he general secretary,” Hicks told me this week, “is not remotely like the lifestyle of his members… That would end if I were elected. I would take an average wage.” We’ll see – though as an outsider with no resources check out his website), I can’t honestly pretend he’s likely to win.

None of this would have to be a problem… if this weren’t a trade union. Challenging a trade union general secretary generally goes down badly among the senior officers at the union, who are expected to be loyal to their man (it always is a man). Simpson himself was threatened with disciplinary action when he challenged Sir Ken. In the next few weeks and months, the Unite machine will be deployed against Hicks. And fur will fly.

…And I still haven’t got on to Simpson v Woodley! Watch this space for Part II…

Hello Mandy!

Friday 3 October 2008

So the reshuffle did happen today after all – and as I predicted below, it wasn’t big. Neither Alistair Darling, David Miliband nor Alan Johnson got moved – all too sensitive. Jim Murphy hasn’t been promoted, as I thought. And James Purnell is staying put. So far, so predictable.

But Peter Mandelson! That caught the lobby correspondents off balance. Nick Robinson is “gobsmacked“, Sam Coates didn’t see it coming, and Michael White is “astonished“.

Interestingly, the man he replaces is business secretary John Hutton. On Mandelson, a Cabinet minister told Robinson: “He’s New Labour to his core, pro-business and tough on the unions. It will light a blue touch-paper under the government”. Er, people said the same things about John Hutton.

The unions won’t be pleased. They hated Hutton, but Mandy isn’t much better for them. I may have been wrong about Hutton not going, but his replacement is more of the same. The Brownite-Blairite divide remains. And since Brown was apparently too weak to move against the Blairites, Brown seems to have tried to make the most of it by appointing a man of experience and talent – and who is as responsible for New Labour as Brown is.

Meanwhile, I’m itching to know about Caroline Flint, whose demise I predicted. Benedict Brogan at the Mail and Jim Pickard at the FT are saying Margaret Beckett has returned as housing minister. Has she got Flint’s job? We shall see…

Update, 18:15 Friday 3 October: Jim Murphy has been promoted from Europe minister to Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, while Margaret Becket has replaced Caroline Flint as housing minister. I was wrong on the first count and right on the second. But Murphy’s ‘promotion’ is to a job which is, of course, much reduced in these devolved days. So it’s less of a surprise; nobody expected Murphy to get the boot.

The difference between Murphy and Flint is that Flin, by all accounts, wanted to go. Not one Blairite has suffered from this reshuffle, despite one – Murphy – being a plotter by all accounts. Whatever Brown’s reshuffle says about Brown, it does not say he is strong. The flip side is that Blairites and Brownites may be prepared to unite under him.

Unite’s all-alliterative advert, and more multimedia munificence

Thursday 2 October 2008

Hat-tip to The Times’ Sam Coates for spotting the story in Unite’s ad campaign against the Tories (left), which ran in the Guardian (full-page) and the Morning Star yesterday (not sure if it ran in Tribune).

Unite are already on shaky ground here, as the Tories aren’t the only party to take donations and generally be chummy with hedge fund managers who short-sell shares – an activity currently blamed for distorting the financial markets, if not actually helping the likes of HBOS collapse. As the FT’s Jim Pickard points out, Labour take money from short-sellers too.

But the other problem, for some, is whether Unite should be spending so much money (a full page newspaper ad probably costs well over £10,000) given to it by its members – some of whom are low-paid – on propping up Labour. Jerry Hicks, a former Unite who is challenging Derek Simpson for the post of single general secretary, is one such person. And given the rumours about Unite having two political policies, he’s probably not alone.

As I like to say though, we shouldn’t be surprised. Like Sam, I was at Unite’s Labour Party conference fringe meeting last week, where political director and Gordon chum Charlie Whelan effectively told me that Unite were going to write bigger cheques and work harder to help Labour win the next election. The £8 million political fund isn’t actually being increased till November.

Meanwhile, Hicks et al probably won’t be pleased at Unite’s next piece of publicity, this time commemorating the full merger of Amicus and the T&G. Tony Woodley, the other joint gen sec (T&G) has sent out a letter inviting people to the launch of a DVD commemorating the T&G’s history. Who knows, maybe Tribune will be selling it alongside our Soviet Propaganda DVDs (no, really) at our stand at conferences. Not that Unite does Soviet propaganda, of course. Labour propaganda, that’s another matter.