Archive for April, 2009

Darling’s Budget cuts: a question of where, not if

Tuesday 28 April 2009

An edited version of this post appears on Liberal Conspiracy.

It’s a targeted programme of efficiency savings that will free up cash for investment in frontline services. Or it’s a devastating round of cuts that will damage public services and prolong the recession.

Take your pick, but don’t be surprised. The seeds of the £15 billion savings in public sector bills announced in Alistair Darling’s 2009 Budget were sown in last year’s Budget, which launched the Operational Efficiency Programme. The OEP’s authors spent a year walking – literally, I’m told – round government departments looking for cost savings, before writing their report.

They must have shown Darling an advance copy, because on Budget Day – one day after the OEP report came out – Darling announced he agreed with everything it said.

With immediate effect, the state must now change the way it works. Back office functions will be benchmarked. Procurement will be collaborative. Commercial potential will be harnessed. All adding up, we are told, to £15 billion. What will it mean?

One civil service manager had little doubt recently. Noting that there were two people in his office whose sole function seemed to be refilling the laser printer, he suggested that in the circumstances, maybe they should go. Printer replenishment operatives aside, the OEP is the talk of Whitehall, even if it isn’t making civil servants quake in their boots just yet.

But it’s hard to see how a big chunk of the savings won’t come from a reduction in the head count. One saving the OEP report talks up is ‘shared services’, such as government departments using the same back office software. But assuming Alistair Darling isn’t going to be up all night BitTorrenting pirate copies of Sage, that will mean buying new software, or at least new licences. Some harmonisation has already been done: the Cabinet Office and Department for Work and Pensions, for instance, use the same payroll system. And of course, merging back offices means fewer staff: the OEP report approvingly cites the case study of a private firm that lost 70 per cent of its finance and HR staff.

So there must be job losses. There must also be privatisation – the Royal Mint, Land Registry and the Defence Storage and Distribution Agency (you learn something new every day) will be fully or partly sold off. Some of the jobless will go onto Jobseekers’ Allowance. At current rates, before any such redundancies, enough extra people will join JSA rolls in the next three months to staff every department, quango and executive agency in Whitehall.

Anyone who disagrees violently with the above will not perhaps be overwhelmed by the opposition. The only united campaign comes from the Trade Union Co-ordinating Group, a team of left-wing unions set up last year to provide an alternative forum for political action to the TUC and the Labour-affiliated unions. It includes the Public and Commercial Services Union, representing some 300,000 workers mostly in central government.

Contrary to a report in last week’s Guardian, the TUCG is not meeting MPs this week to discuss how to fight the Budget. It’s having a routine business meeting, which will cover the same issue, amongst others.

Even if the unions were lobbying MPs, they’d be up against massive odds. Because when Darling rubber-stamped the OEP report, he also endorsed the complex machinery of cost-cutting it will set up. The Treasury will establish a “value for money review group”; each department will have a minister responsible for “championing value for money”; there will be operational reviews, systems reviews and six-monthly asset management and sales reviews.

In short, unless the Finance Bill that passes the Budget into law is stopped in its tracks in Parliament – which it won’t – the wheels of efficiency savings will be grinding away before anything can be done about it. It looks like the argument will now shift to what gets the chop, and when.

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Any progress in progressive blogging?

Tuesday 21 April 2009

I’m beginning to regret deciding to blog about the ethic of progressive blogging unveiled yesterday by Fabian Society general secretary Sunder Katwala. I like to think this blog goes easy on opinion, and I can think of very little objective to say about it. Happily, there’s been intense discussion on Liberal Conspiracy, and ex-minister Tom Harris has criticised it on his blog. Even so, I fear I’m going to have to express some explicit opinions.  Pass the rubber gloves.

Briefly (if you can’t even be bothered to click through) the statement, which applies to Labour Party members and supporters, is in reaction to the Damian McBride affair (as Katwala himself admits). It binds its signatories to behave ethically in their blogging; avoid personal attacks except insofar as they are in the public interest;  embrace pluralism and openess; avoid top-down Labour Party control; and co-operate.

This statement seems like the sort of thing that will be signed only by people who were trying to follow its precepts already, so one might ask, what’s the point? Tom Harris doesn’t see one. He doesn’t like its “defensive” tone, and perhaps he has a point, with passages like this one:

“The nihilistic approach practiced by a few online should not overshadow the greater energy and numbers engaged in constructive civic advocacy. We believe that we can challenge our political opponents without always questioning their integrity.”

A few? You mean Guido Fawkes? The language is certainly reactive, call it what you will; a reaction to the stink raised by the McBride affair. But then what else could it be? It’s a code of ethics, not a plan of action for Labour blogging.

As a discussion between like-minded people (or “live blogging from an Islington dinner party”, as one particularly partisan critic put it) I guess this is preaching to the converted. But isn’t this ethic also a message to Labour HQ to reform their apporach to blogging? Yes it is.

“We believe that attempts to transfer ‘command and control’ models to online politics will inevitably fail. Labour must show that it gets that – in practice as well as theory”

As a message, will it work? I don’t know. But it’ll have to be more successful than the Fabian Society and Compass put together – members of which make up a lot of the signatories –  have been at convincing Labour of the rightness of their policy papers. It’d be interesting, for instance, if the Fabians or Compass started saying that LabourList was all wrong and an example of misguided command-and-control new media authoring. But they probably won’t. So I imagine things will stay as they are. If anything changes the relationship between the Labour Party and Labour bloggers, I guess it’ll have to come from the bloggers themselves. Take the bloggers out of LabourList and you’d leave Ray Collins, sorry, Derek Draper, looking silly.

Unite has funded LabourList in the past

Sunday 19 April 2009

I think I should qualify what Iain Dale, Tory Bear and Jim Pickard of the FT have been saying about funding of LabourList. Apparently* the press office of Unite the Union (political director: Charlie Whelan – please note, Telegraph, not Wheelan) have denied that they fund LabourList. Well, on one level that is true: they don’t regularly send money their way, and may not have done so for some months.

But the fact is, Unite have paid for a couple of adverts on LabourList in the past, so to suggest that money has never changed hands – which the above commentators appear to think is the Unite line – is not true. If someone wants to have a look at those adverts, I’m sorry, I don’t have screenshots. I can’t even tell you if they definitely appeared on the website. But the space was bought.

Will more adverts be bought? And will Derek Simpson and Tony Woodley, Unite’s joint bosses, continue to have articles in their name published on LabourList, at least while Derek Draper is in charge? Good questions – to which I’ve obtained no answers yet.

From LabourList’s financial statement: “We receive no money from the Labour party and are funded by advertising, sponsorship and donations.”

I didn’t want to post another short-term reactive blog post so soon after the last one, but oh well…

*I tried asking Unite’s press office about their relationship to LabourList this week, but they didn’t get back to me before I checked out of the office.

Labour’s planned smear website: Telegraph gets it wrong

Monday 13 April 2009

My blog post today was going to be about my experience of the government’s special advisers in the light of the Damian McBride scandal – and I will write about that, later today if I get time – but I’ve spotted a bizarre piece published on the Telegraph website yesterday purporting to be a profile of the Unite official Andrew Dodgshon, who it says is the “apparent frontman” for Red Rag, the empty blog website where McBride proposed to publish unfounded smears against senior Tories.

This article is full of mistakes and its author has obviously not bothered to check any of the contents.

I don’t know what, if any, involvement Dodgshon has with Red Rag. But I have had some dealings with the man, so I can tell you that he isn’t a “journalist and press officer for the Transport and General Workers Union” any more. For over a year he’s actually been based in the political department. And someone should tell the Telegraph about the T&G’s merger to form Unite. He doesn’t live in Milton Keynes either. Charlie Whelan is Unite’s political director and therefore Dodgshon’s boss, but he’s not in charge of press officers, who are in a different department under different bosses. And yes, he does review books for Tribune – as do people far more loyal to the government, like Denis McShane – but why didn’t the article’s author check by putting the website through a Google search?

Come to think of it, why didn’t he get hold of Dodgshon’s phone number – which isn’t hard – and ring him up? This article should have been more rigorously checked before the Telegraph’s web editors let it get published, and it doesn’t reflect well on their standards.

Unions love the G20 (is the party line)

Tuesday 7 April 2009

The British press gave the G20 summit a pretty good press on their front pages last week, with words like ‘historic’, ‘hail’ and of course ‘trillion’. Avid readers of this blog will probably have also come across more sober analyses (like this one) dissecting what was agreed, questioning how firm the agreements really were and stripping away the money that had already been promised or given (most of it) from that $1.1 trillion headline figure.

No such reticence from the Trade Union and Labour Party Liaison Organisation, which acts as a conduit for political discussions between the party and its 15 affiliated unions and is based in an office inside Labour HQ. On their recently revamped Web 2.0-enabled website it gives the summit a jaunty high-five: “JOB DONE – now let’s get to work”.

“Gordon Brown’s $1.1 trillion G20 deal looks set to kickstart the worldwide economy,” it continues. No ambiguity about which world leader was responsible for what part of the deal then.

You’d expect TULO to support the Labour Party, and encourage its members to join and vote Labour – which it does; there’s a link to joining the party on its site. But supporting the Labour Government is another matter – just ask the CWU which is threatening to disaffiliate over Royal Mail part-privatisation.

And it’s hard to see anything on the website which diverges from the government line. In the news section, there’s a press release praising Labour MEPs and attacking Tory MEPs for their stance on anti-discrimination measures.

But interestingly, there’s no mention of how – that very same day – talks in the European Parliament on the Working Time Directive, which limits workers to a 48-hour working week, collapsed after Pat McFadden, Labour’s employment affairs minister, refused to budge. The UK’s opt-out is opposed by trade unions and not a few Labour MEPs.

TULO’s line will surely chime with what the more government-friendly union bosses say. Plenty of rank-and-file trade unionists won’t like it, such as Jon Rogers here. He raises the question of how such trumpeting advances the cause of unions fighting for their members’ rights, like those sacked Visteon workers.

This isn’t to say TULO is Gordon Brown’s plaything. It isn’t, and it does seek to lobby the government with union-friendly policies. But you may ask whether it should also appear to campaign on behalf of the same government.

P.S. The new TULO website is built by Blue Sky Digital, whose London bureau chief Matthew McGregor used to be TULO’s communications man (and Jon Cruddas’ assistant before that). BSD are also helping the CWU run their “Keep the Post Public” campaign against the government’s Royal Mail plans. McGregor himself is a loyal Unite T&G member. For now, the firm seems happy riding those two horses.

Hat-tip: Jon Rogers