“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?