Archive for February, 2009

Is the Labour-union link doomed? A view from today’s demo

Tuesday 24 February 2009

CWU protest, Billy Hayes on left

“If they privatise the postal service, I don’t care who wins the next election, because there won’t be any difference between them.”

Billy Hayes, general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, can be bolshy when he wants to be, but even for him this was tough language.

He said it – actually, he shouted it – at the close of today’s rally against Royal Mail part-privatisation in Westminster, and having just deprecated Labour his next act was to get chummy with a Tory MP. Daniel Kawczynski, the member for Shrewsbury and Atcham, all 204 centimetres of him, had turned up to offer his support, and when he met Billy, the latter cheerfully announced over the PA that Kawczynski was going to sign the early day motion opposing part-privatisation. (He’s also going to vote against the bill – thus defying a Tory whip, he told me.)

This rally was the most explosive display of anti-Government feeling among trade unions I’ve seen, and certain things make me think the Labour-union link is under its greatest threat yet:

1) Billy Hayes’ comments. General secretaries do not dictate union policy, but they can influence how their members vote  when they vote on it at annual conference, not least through “the machine”, the army of full-time officers who are on hand to brief members (or as some see it, twist their arms into voting one way or another). Hayes will not try to stop his members voting to sever links with Labour (when they vote presently).

2) Not to be outdone, GMB general secretary Paul Kenny is threatening to cut off the constituency funding of MPs who vote for part-privatisation. Sound familiar? Yes, he’s threatened it before, as I reminded him when he was on his way out of the building. Yes, and we’ve done it before, he replied. “We’ve got a register,” he added ominously. As Labour plunges in the polls, those funds will be more needed than ever.

3) Cutting off funding to unhelpful MPs is also what Amicus general secretary candidate Jerry Hicks threatened to do when I spoke to him last week. As I hint below, there is a leftward tide in even loyal-to-Labour unions. My sources are worried about those Labour Party affiliation votes at union conferences, which get harder every year.

4) Relations between Downing Street and the unions have hit a new low. After all, if the government’s Warwick promise to keep “a wholly publicly owned” Royal Mail is broken, what price the whole policy-making process? Recently the No 10 political staff met with union reps to ask what concessions would encourage the CWU to drop their opposition to the government’s bill. The answer? Stop part privatisation. And the problem is partly personal: some trade unionists don’t merely dislike Lord Mandelson,  but believe he is hell-bent on systematically destroying union influence on party policy.

5) It therefore follows that no amount of carrots offered by ministers will stop this loud, well-supported, broad-based campaign.

6) And finally. John McDonnell spoke at today’s rally, as did Brendan Barber. That is unusual. The two men don’t often share a platform together – the campaigns they’re associated with have in the past rivalled each other (e.g. Public Services Not Private Profit vs Speak Up for Public Services). But today they spoke as one (well, Barber spoke and McDonnell shouted).

The bill gets published on Thursday in the Lords, where Labour peer Lord Clarke will try to derail it from the start. Battle draws near.

A final thought: A friend of mine with many more union contacts than me suggested a tactic the unions could use. They could go on unofficial strike action, breaking the so-called Thatcherite anti-union laws (as McDonnell suggested today they should do), and then take the fine money out of their affiliation fees. It has a certain seductive simplicity, does it not?


Don’t mess with the Prison Officers’ Association

Sunday 22 February 2009

Prison Officers Association general secretary Brian Caton

The Prison Officers’ Association’s rejection of the Ministry of Justice’s modernisation plans will worry Jack Straw. The POA and its general secretary Brian Caton are nothing if not militant. At last year’s TUC congress, a vote was held on holding coordinated strike action across unions. I wasn’t in the hall at the time, but I’m told that on a show of hands the ayes had it. But Unison general secretary Dave Prentis in the chair, no fan of general strikes, denied there was a clear result and called for a card vote, whereupon the Unite members suddenly ‘mislaid’ their cards and the vote was lost.

Caton’s response? Prentis should “get new glasses”. The POA also put forward a vote calling for an actual general strike, which didn’t get even that far.

So if the POA have rejected a pay-and-modernisation offer, it’s likely they’ll want to make trouble over it. The BBC and the Daily Mail jumped on the angle of fitness tests for officers, but in reality this is a much bigger argument over a) whether Straw’s carrot of a promised £50 million cash injection for extra pay in 2009-10 is worth the modernisation hoops that officers will have to jump through, and b) whether (as the POA says) the prison service is being cut to the bone anbd the plans will see staffing numbers fall and the best-trained staff going to the wall – even as the government wheels out its titan prisons.

Strike action by prison officers was made illegal last year. But in 2007, prison officers took unofficial strike action, and the recent nationwide wildcat strikes will no doubt have emboldened the union. Despite the sensitive role of prison officers, the POA’s militancy has traditionally meant it’s more likely to take a hard line with government that most other civil service unions. Put simply, if the POA’s members don’t take unofficial action (suitably disowned by their leadership, of course) I’ll be surprised.

Rene told you so (part the umpteenth)

Friday 20 February 2009

12 February: Tribune reports that GM is going to flog off Saab.

18 February: reports: “GM Europe will also consider partnerships for German-based Opel and is aiming to dispose of loss-making Swedish car maker Saab.”

20 February: Saab hits the headlines big time.

Maybe you should try reading Tribune, guys. You might learn something.

Labour-supporting union leader faces challenge

Friday 20 February 2009
Alan Ritchie

Alan Ritchie

No, not that one. Belatedly I see from Socialist Unity that Alan Ritchie, general secretary of construction union UCATT, is to be challenged at his next election by Mick Dooley, a London region organiser. Dooley first stood for election in 2004, and polled about half as many votes as Ritchie. If you believe Socialist Unity, which supports Jerry Hicks for Amicus gen sec, then Dooley is the staunch lefty candidate challenging the complacent Blairite that is Ritchie. I am sure the Ritchie camp will have something to say about that.

This is interesting for a number of reasons.

UCATT, which says it has 125,000 members,  is an unswerving supporter (including financially) of the Labour Party. After the second Warwick Agreement last year, it put out a press release declaring that they had made “significant progress” in persuading the government of the wisdom of their demands, and that “An outline of proposals to radically transform the construction industry was agreed.”

They declined to mention what any of this progress was, which is just as well because over six months on that progress is hard to see. The Gangmasters’ Licensing Authority still does not regulate the construction industry, which UCATT says means lots of workers being employed on a casual basis with no rights. The Health and Safety Executive is still far too light-touch for their liking, and doesn’t carry out nearly enough inspections. And so on.

But UCATT takes the loyalist union line: we pay our dues, we make our arguments but we don’t do cash for policies. UCATT is notable, in fact, in rebuffing the advances of Tory trade union envoy Richard Balfe – the only other union I know that hasn’t spoken to him is the T&G section of Unite.

It’ll be interesting to see if any of this comes up in the election campaign. Unite and UCATT are not the only unions where the left-of-Labour political caucuses are mobilising for a fight back this year. We could be witnessing the emergence of a new awkward squad (but it’s a big ‘could’).

Update: Oh yes, I forgot to say, Dooley has allegedly done the Aslef thing of getting into a punch-up with a union colleague.

Golliwogs-a-go-go: I offended you first

Thursday 19 February 2009


I know I’m a week late with this but oh well.

Reading a friend’s recent blog post about the Carol Thatcher/golliwog doll sales controversy reminded me of something I and my fellow students did many moons ago when I was founder-editor of The Cheese Grater magazine at University College London (now in its sixth year and with four awards under its belt). The students’ union had recnetly put on a “chav night” encouraging people to dress up in Burberry caps, Kappa jackets etc. and mock this urban underclass. A very snobbish middle-class Home Counties thing to do, and therefore a very UCL student thing to do.

Being a satirical magazine, one of our contributors suggested we hit back with a mock flyer for a “gollywognight” and take social stereotyping to its logical extreme. He offered a picture of the offending doll. An ethnic Asian fellow contributor was enraptured: “Look at his little face!” she squealed. I mocked up a poster (above) and we published it in December 2005.

No complaints arrived but the then union general manager, one Mike McLeod who later resigned in disgrace, did object.

Personally, I was very pleased with what we’d done and how we’d executed the joke. But I was not prepared a year later to discover that someone else had come upwith exactly the same idea… for a real club night (see below). The person who brought it to my attention had some link with the club night (perhaps a flyer boy), and was annoyed that people had been taking offence. You and me both brother.

It’s so hard to satirise the world when it keeps on turning into a parody of itself…


The Times catches up with me (and everyone else)

Thursday 19 February 2009

15 February: This blog (see post immediately below) quotes Greg Jackson of Tanget Labs, web developers by appointment to Labour, as saying Labour “lags behind” the Tories on new media. I also quote Douglas Alexander saying they could learn some tricks from the Obama campaign. (Both these points already having been made ad nauseam even before Obama won the election – it was the talk of Labour Party Conference last year, f’rinstance).

19 February:  “Obama’s tech wizard says Labour need his magic: Thomas Gensemer, who masterminded President Obama’s internet campaign, says Labour are lagging behind the Tories in technology”, blares Times Online. Gensemer is a managing partner of Blue State Digital, also web developers by appointment to Labour.

Get with it!

Are you a twitter, Lord Mandelson?

Sunday 15 February 2009

With some delay, back to the Labour Party’s new media strategy as laid out at the slightly tongue-in-cheekily named “New Labour, New Media” bloggers’ breakfast on Thursday. It wasn’t just for Labour activists and politically motivated bloggers – there were some trade union officials in the audience too.

First speak was Draper, who insisted that LabourList was independent, and that no-one’s ever told him what to write/not write and who to use/not use. That may be, but the independence claim was slightly undermined by the fact of holding a bloggers’ breakfast at Labour Party HQ to talk about LabourList, complete with high-resolution logos on the LCD screens. Next was Sue McMillan, the Labour Party’s head of new media, who spoke far too quickly and monotonously to grasp what she was saying. The plethora of jargon (“sophisticated platforms”, “strands of thinking”, “new opportunities” etc.) didn’t help.

Greg Jackson of Tangent Labs, the web development firm behind LabourList and Go Fourth, was much better to begin with: “The revolution will not be televised, except it will be – it’ll be on YouTube… and afterwards people will catch up on iPlayer…” Oh dear. He’d obviously written out a cheesy speech in advance and didn’t try to adjust it to suit the occasion or the other speakers. Still, he made some interesting remarks – affirming, for instance, that “Labour lag behind the Tories in the blogosphere.”

After John Prescott and his cheeky video, it was Peter Mandelson’s turn. Mandelson, who (perhaps in a nod to Geoff Hoon) was tapping away on his BlackBerry while Ray Collins spoke, didn’t seem to have prepared many speaking notes: he was hesitant with not a lot to say. What he did say was to backtrack on his earlier assertion that “in new media command and control doesn’t work” slightly. Apparently the distinction between command and control and “inchoate online anarchy” was a “false choice”. “We still need our slogans, we still need our soundbites.” But should they be on the ‘independent’ LabourList? Not clear.

Then came Douglas Alexander, Minister for the General Election, who did his usual thang of talking about campaigning technique. There was “strong academic research”, he said, that people who get texted by party activists on election day are much more likely to vote (and vote the right way, presumably). He spoke approvingly of how the Obama campaign got hold of lots of names and phone numbers (“text numbers”, he called them) by offering the bait of being told – in advance of the media – who Obama’s vice-presidential choice would be.

Cabinet Office minister Tom Watson was interesting on NetMums, the ‘local network’ site where some 550,000 mothers come together to check listings and chat. Their “collective wisdom” was worth pursuing, he said, and any such real-life audience would have MPs and ministers chasing after it.

So – where does this leave Labour? Not all in one place, perhaps. Mandelson’s approach to Web 2.0 sounded frostier than John Prescott’s or Tom Watson’s (both of whom blog a lot more than he does). Sue McMillan said that the Labour Party website wasn’t the place to attract floating voters – so where is it? Is it LabourList, which we were told was independent by its editor? Or is it GoFourth, which is nominally a “Campaign for a Labour Fourth Term” but which seems to be getting caught up on campaigns such as an anti-bankers’ bonuses one, and on trivia about John Prescott? What happens to all the online feedback – can it translate into new or different policies? Douglas Alexander cited the road pricing petition that got over 1.7 million signatures, but acknowledged that online feedback and the wheels of government don’t yet move at the same rate (will they ever be able to?) And just how close to the party and government can a successful Labour-supporting website be? When Greg Jackson said the Tories were ahead of Labour in the blogosphere, I think he meant the likes of Iain Dale and ConservativeHome, not the official Conservative Party Blue Blog.

I mentioned trade unionists, and TUC new media man John Wood has already blogged about this event. One trade unionist noted how their union only has e-mail adresses for a fraction of their members – and that many of those are probably defunct. If those unions are to persuade their members not to vote BNP and to vote Labour instead, that doesn’t bode well.

How blogging works

Saturday 14 February 2009

statsTypical. I write about the Warwick Agreement, which is so critical to Labour’s future, and it gets 186 views. I write about whether Labour’s national executive committee will issue papers to re-nominate Gordon Brown, and it gets 142 views. I then quote Derek Draper yelling at David Hencke (below), and it gets read 1,896 times to date.  Needless to say, almost all those people followed links from Guido Fawkes and Iain Dale. I’ve only just met Draper; I fear this won’t endear me to him.

I also suspect those readers won’t stick around to hear what I’ve got to say about trade unions or the next reshuffle. Ho hum.

Derek Draper gets angry: how ‘new media’ bites itself

Thursday 12 February 2009

“Justify the headline in that fucking story! Go and change it before you become the laughing stock of the lobby!… Doing Guido Fawkes’ dirty work…”

Today I went to a Labour Party ‘bloggers’ breakfast’ to discuss the party’s use of new media. I will blog on that issue later tonight, but I think I should get one little thing out of the way first, which if nothing else sheds light on some of old and new media’s movers and shakers.

The blogosphere is abuzz today with the fallout over David Hencke’s Guardian article alleging that LabourList editor Derek Draper has misled people over his CV. Read the article to see what the allegation is.

Draper has got into protracted arguments with bloggers via web and e-mail before, notably Tim Ireland and Iain Dale. Without entering into the rights and wrongs, let it be sufficient to observe that he has a tendency to get himself entangled in such contretemps, in which both sides seem (note: seem, before one of you complains) happy to prolong the argument.

This morning, over coffee and croissants at Labour HQ, he seemed in a good mood however – even having a joke at his own expense by revealing that an American girl once Googled his name and informed him that “there’s another Derek Draper in England and he’s a complete twat” (belly laughs from the audience of Labour activists and a few journalists). However, at the end of the session we suddenly became aware of some yelling going on in a corner of the room. It was Draper, going at it hammer and tongs with David Hencke (as quoted above), stabbing with his finger at the offending story and accusing him of being in league with Guido (who had already latched onto Hencke’s story here). Draper has since posted an article on LabourList attacking both of them and saying he is consulting solicitors.

Why does this matter? On one level, I would suggest that it doesn’t. Hencke’s colleague Roy Greenslade is, I think, right to say that this is an ‘inside-the-beltway’ story, i.e. about two politico-media personalities that the average person really doesn’t care about. One journalist I spoke to at the meeting emphatically told me they wouldn’t be blogging about it for that very reason (though they would tell everyone they met, natch.)

The reason I’m blogging about it is it does point up an important issue about the position that someone like Draper – in charge of what’s meant to be a broad-based, independent blogging platform for discussing big issues – finds themselves. If you want to harness the power of Web 2.0 to your advantage, you don’t want to be getting caught up in arguments with either ‘dead tree’ journalists or experienced bloggers who question your model and your motives. Differences are one thing, but protracted arguments help nobody. Draper insists to his critics that he is too busy building a popular website to take too much time out to address their gripes, but then he goes and writes long posts on his own website about non-Labour Party issues.

But the crux of the issue isn’t about Draper. And Derek, if you’re reading this, I hope you don’t think this post is unfair on you – I’m not judging; I leave that to other people. It is this: new media is a double-edged sword. By taking hold of it you also give people the wherewithal to wound you through undermining the credibility of your organisation or your people. And as one geeky type told me at the bloggers’  bunfight breakfast, there’s a risk that the mainstream media may respond to the rise of gossip-mongering websites like Guido’s by trying to rush out such stories themselves before they’ve been right round the blogosphere. When a political party throws itself into new media campaigning and tries to open up channels with the public that way, it seems it will encounter elephant traps. (I’m trying to think of that happening to the Tories recently, but can’t think of an example – I don’t think Titiangate counts. If you can, let me know.)

Bankers’ bonuses: what is going on/going on?

Tuesday 10 February 2009

One of my stories for this week’s Tribune will cover the reaction among the public and MPs to the issue of whether bailed-out bankers should get bonuses (I wonder what line Tribune will take).

A lot of people, from John Humphrys to George Osborne and beyond, have suggested that the government’s promise of a review (led by ex-banker Sir David Walker, he of the let-them-police-themselves review into private equity) is not enough.

If you believe the government (with which I’ve been in contact today) all the heat generated by this review is unfair. They will be taking action in the next few weeks to cap pay and/or bonuses, promise. The review is the long-term remedy, which will addres the thorny question of how remuneration is linked to risk – the link which suposedly got us in this mess in the first place.

But ah, they would say that, wouldn’t they? Anyway, read more in Tribune.