Archive for June, 2009

Labour and the unions: Prentis lets the genie out

Wednesday 17 June 2009

images-1Astonished.

That was my response on seeing what Unison’s Dave Prentis told his conference yesterday, at which he effectively said that a number of Labour MPs risk losing union funding to their constituencies. “No more blank cheques”, says Unison’s press release. It doesn’t get much more blunt than that.

I wasn’t the only one. Sources tell me that very few people knew of the general secretary’s remarks before he made them. And the remarks themselves are both astonishing and important.

Astonishing because Unison has shown itself until now to be a diehard supporter of the Labour Party and the Labour Government (much though it criticises policies such as the Private Finance Initiative). It was simply not done to mention the money – millions of pounds – it pays to Labour Party HQ, MPs through their constituencies and for campaigning support, every year. Cash for policies was never raised – partly because it is a stick the Conservatives used to beat Labour with, accusing it of being under the thumb of unions. Until now.

Important because it’s a step change in how Britain’s biggest public sector union, and its second biggest union overall, works. Or as a senior Unison officer said: “The genie’s out of the bottle”. Other Labour-supporting unions such as the CWU get the chance to debate their political funding at their annual conference. Not Unison: the obscure Rule J (I’ll spare you the details) means that the topic is off-limits.

Constituency funds are managed by regional committees and, as late as last week, I was being told that the situation would remain thus. But the rules seem to have been, erm, worked around. I can reveal there was an emergency meeting of Unison’s national Labour Link Committee last night, described to me as a “formality”. Prentis has spoken. As an activist put it: “The old settlement of Unison Labour Link being an autnomous part of the union is gone.”

Labour Party staff ought to be sweating. This is another snapping of threads in the ropes holding Labour’s trade union link together. And the fact nobody saw it coming makes it all the more powerful.

P.S. Cynics may suggest this is why the list of Unison Labour MPs disappeared from Unison’s website a couple of weeks ago.

The BNP, Labour and the left: to egg or not to egg?

Thursday 11 June 2009

Yesterday I met someone who helped organise the protest at Nick Griffin’s open-air news conference next to Parliament on Tuesday, which culminated in Griffin being pelted with eggs and fleeing to his car.

Except that they didn’t pelt Griffin, or kick his car as it sped away. In fact, they were disgusted at the activists from Unite Against Fascism who indulged in such behaviour. Beside the egg-throwers on College Green were a group of trade union members from the Public and Commercial Services Union. Their plan was to shout Griffin down, using their own right to free speech to nullify his.

You may not think there’s much difference, but the differing tactics point up a divergence on the left and in Labour about how to deal with the BNP. Nowhere is this divergence clearer than in the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham, where the BNP are the official opposition on the council with 12 seats.

Supporters of Barking MP Margaret Hodge, who famously alienatedanti-BNP campaigners three years ago, say the best way to deal with them is to ignore the actual party while addressing the sensitive issues the BNP  uses to inflame popular opinion, like housing and other services. Meanwhile supporters of Jon Cruddas next door in Dagenham believe in the ‘Hope not Hate’ campaign run by Searchlight and heavily supported by unions. They prefer to target the BNP explicitly, refer to it by name and highlight what they see as their bonkers record in elected office. Even Searchlight and UAF, who broadly go for the same explicit approach, don’t get on.

The question of what to do with the BNP is an old one for Labour and the left. Labour’s disastrous showing in last week’s elections has brought it forward. But if Labour doesn’t come up with a coherent approach that its MPs and activists all agree on, they will suffer for it, just like they already have. More council elections are coming up next May, including… Barking and Dagenham.

P.S. Just found an interesting postfrom a Councillor Phil Andrews in Isleworth, an ex-National Front supporter and former friend of Griffin. A bit long, but it has some revealing details about the BNP’s workings (around the middle). He writes: 

“The BNP’s concerns… are not about numbers, nor for that matter about jobs, housing, education nor anything else of that kind. They are about race. Just as they were when I was involved with the far right. All that has changed, essentially, is the packaging.”

The NEC is proving key

Tuesday 9 June 2009

On this “ever-intriguing” (thank you, Sam Coates) blog I recently wrote that Labour’s national executive committee was in a pivotal position to make or break Brown’s credibility over MPs’ expenses, after the setting up an endorsements panel or ‘star chamber’ to hear MPs’ cases. And so it’s proved. One particular case could be a can of worms for the Prime Minister.

Norwich North MP Ian Gibson announced his resignation at the weekend, after the NEC panel barred him from standing for re-election (in turn after he’d said he wouldn’t stand).  Gibson was reported by his local paper (link above) as saying he agreed with his constituency chairman’s view that his barring was a “fait accompli” by the panel – despite the fact that, unlike two of his colleagues, he actually appeared before it. His reaction was “devastation”, which is presumably why he’s decided to precipitate a by-election.

Did he deserve it? Gibson spent around £80,000 on a second home in which his daughter and her boyfriend lived rent-free; then he sold it to them at below market price (not making a profit). It’s not clear that this breaches the spirit or letter of the rules.

By contrast Hazel Blears engaged in flipping of homes (living in three in one year), avoided paying capital gains tax on her second home and spent quite a lot on hotel bills. Again, no obvious breach of the rules. So why hasn’t she been dragged before the panel? Cynics might point to her voting record and say she was more loyal than Gibson – and more dangerous if provoked.

Appearances before the NEC panel are decided by chief whip Nick Brown and general secretary Ray Collins. More loyal Brown supporters you could not wish for.  Already there’ve been mutterings about the NEC-based procedure from, er, the NEC. Peter Kenyon wrote last month:

“As a member of Labour’s NEC, I have received a lot of angry emails and comments on my blogs about apparent anomalies in the treatment of different ministers, as well as between ministers and backbenchers. Some of this upset can be accounted for by shock about what has been going on in Westminster. Some can’t, perceptions of scapegoating can’t be easily brushed aside.

I would be very interested to hear from anyone who thinks they know of strong evidence of an anomaly, which I could add to a case I have already referred to the powers that be. Once reviewed and explained we need to be open about the reasons why apparently similar cases are being dealt with differently. Otherwise, there is no way in which party members’ confidence in the NEC and the Party Leader/PM is going to be restored, let alone that of the electorate in Labour’s competence to govern.”

Exclusive: Royal Mail sale is off

Tuesday 2 June 2009

There’s been speculation over whether the bidders were putting in a good price, there’s been talk about putting off an auction. But it doesn’t matter anymore.

Last night’s difficult Parliamentary Labour party meeting, plus the House of Commons’ future business papers, make the situation clear: the Postal Services Bill that opens the door to up to half of Royal Mail being sold off, has been dumped from the Government’s legislative programme. Harriet Harman refused to answer questions on the subject, apparently preferring to let the business papers do the talking.

It could come back, of course. But with Labour MPs and activists alike despairing of the party’s fortunes, how soon are they going to revisit such a toxic issue, one that could lose them votes as well as union backing? (N.B. The Communication Workers Union is not likely to vote for disaffiliation at their conference next week however, as the executive is against it.)

What this means for Lord Mandelson, who on Sunday said he was “not for turning” on part-privatisation, remains to be seen. Lindsay Hoyle, one of the MPs leading the fight against mail sale, wryly says: “He’s a very capable minister. Why leave them in one position when you can move them to one that needs fixing?” Reshuffle should be interesting.

Update: I should make clear, the situation according to MPs is that the bill doesn’t appear to be being debated at any point in the next three to four weeks. That takes us to within three weeks of the long summer recess…