Archive for September, 2009

Newsflash: No 10 “expects us to win”, says Labour rebel

Wednesday 30 September 2009

In half an hour as I type, Labour’s conference is due to vote on rule changes including the controversial one-member-one-vote proposal for its national policy forum (see below) which could make it easier for more left-wing policies to be adopted by the party – a move the Labour leadership bitterly opposes.

But there’ve been two developments. One: the conference arrangements committee has said that the result of the vote will be delayed till tomorrow. Two: one of the rebel proponents of the move has told me “No 10 say they expect us to win”. All the unions are backing the move, except the highly loyalist USDAW which has now said it’ll abstan, so the weight of votes is shifting in the rebels’ favour. More later…

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The Gordon Brown you don’t normally see

Tuesday 29 September 2009

The question on everybody’s minds this morning is: can Gordon pull off the speech of his life? And I think I’ve seen a clue.

Leaving questions over content aside, the key question is surely whether he will display some of the fire, flair and style that Lord Mandelson so effectively flaunted in his widely acclaimed speech yesterday.

Brown’s friends say he is personable and warm in private, but awkward and stiff in front of cameras – as demonstrated by his appearance on the Andrew Marr show (of which more later). No doubt Mandelson will have had a hand in drafting Brown’s speech. What about the presentation?

On Sunday evening I saw a side to Brown that the cameras don’t normally see. Addressing the Trade Union and Labour Party Liaison Organisation reception, Brown swung into action. He was vigorous, violent even, flashing smiles and near-winks at his audience as he vowed to fight on and to defend British workers at places like Vauxhall(nothing to do with Tony Woodley standing next to him, natch.)

He was, in fact, many of the things he will have to be today. If he can repeat his performance, he’s almost there. If he fails, leadership specualtion – which doesn’t seem to have been rife at conference this year – may re-emerge.

Is this the face of Labour’s future?

Monday 28 September 2009

Colin Burgon MP

“You’re a fucking cunt, Denis!” The words of Colin Burgon MP, memeber of the Socialist Campaign Group, to his more mainstream colleague Denis MacShane, as reported by Tom Copley, chair of London Young Labour. Burgon was behind him at the time and cringed, but didn’t deny it so I guess it’s not in question.

This remark drew some cheers and laughter when it was made at the Young Labour reception last night, cramed into a bar just off Brighton seafront. Burgon, a staunch lefty, was one of the speakers at the event, along with Jon Cruddas and Chuka “British Obama” Ummuna, parliamentary candidate for Streatham.

That’s one lefty and two centre-lefties, not including Nancy Platts, the local candidate for Brighton Pavilion (see below). And the YL chair is Sam Tarry, also chair of the youth wing of centre-left Labour pressure group Compass. Young Labour is, it seems, a lefty outfit. Because they’re young and idealistic, you might say. Well, no; Labour Students is far more in line with government policy. Members of the audience confirmed to me that they thought the speakers were pretty on-message as far as they were concerned.

Will these fresh young faces (possibly slightly less fresh after last night’s drinking exploits) be taking over control of the Labour Party? If so, expect a leftward swing. That’s what they’re planning. But having a few parliamentary candidates, who, let’s face it, are unlikely to win (m)any seats at the next election, won’t be enough.

Labour and the unions: latest conference bunfight

Monday 28 September 2009

Here at Labour’s conference, the air is thick with plotting. This may be Labour’s last chance to rally, but that isn’t stopping No 10 from fighting the unions over a rule change.

The unions, with the support of centre-left party activists, are looking to get members of Labour’s National Policy Forum elected by a one-member-one-vote ballot of their constituency members, instead of by a vote of conference delegates who (they might argue) more open to pressure from party staff.

Anoraky? Maybe. But both sides are determined not to back down, and tensions are rising. National executive committee member Peter Kenyon, who supports OMOV, was seen having a stand-up row with Jonathan Ashworth, No 10’s union liaison man, in the foyer of the Hilton Metropole on Saturday on this very subject. “It’ll let the left in,” is No 10’s reported response to the move**. A senior union source replies: “That’s democracy.”

The vote on OMOV is on Wednesday morning. Watch this space…

**Update: Jonathan Ashworth from No 10 has been in touch. Just to clarify the above: it wasn’t he who said that the rule change will “let the left in”. Rather he argued that it should be considered in the context of a wider review of the Labour Party constitution next year. This is what NEC chair Cath Speight said at Conference, so I’m happy to take that on board and set the record straight.

Where unions and inflation-busting pay rises still rule

Thursday 24 September 2009

Green shoots of recovery may be proving elusive elsewhere in the UK, as Jaguar Land Rover announces today a second round of job losses for this year, but there is at least one sector of private enterprise where, as far as I can tell, work is plentiful, pay is rising and job vacancies appear regularly, though probably in the hundreds rather than thousands at a time.

I’m talking about engineering construction: the sector that gave you such modern marvels as the Middlesbrough transporter bridge, the Esso refinery at Fawley and, um, Sellafield nuclear power station.

It also gave you wildcat strikes at Lindsey Oil Refinery, Staythorpe power station and elsewhere over claims that a) UK workers were being denied work unfairly and b) foreign workers were being paid less than the nationally agreed rate.

I’ve written about this sector before, noting that, according to trade unions, there was still plenty of work to be had.

And last week, it seems my analysis was proved right. Employers represented by the Engineering Construction Industry Association, who operate a national scheme for negotiating with unions over terms of employment on these projects, have caved in to practically every single union demand. From next year, workers will get a two per cent pay rise (above inflation, according to the Treasury’s predictions), twelve paid leave weekends a year, an extension to their injury cover scheme and strengthened rights for their unions.

If this industry was in decline, would the bosses be so generous? I suspect not. But another factor has got to be the all-powerful effect of wildcat strikes, which nobody has yet broken. And as long as the clients of these projects – Shell, E.ON, Total and others – continue making big profits, it seems unlikely to change.

More details here. Ask yourself: do unions get as good a deal as this anywhere else right now?

Labour gives taxpayers’ money to unions? Yes, and Tories too, probably…

Wednesday 16 September 2009

Iain Dale writes today of his outrage that unions are being given public money through the Union Modernisation Fund, which he thinks they channel back into the Labour Party via donations. Aside from the fact this is impossible in most cases – because UMF funding is given to non-Labour affiliated unions too, who constitute the vast majority* – I’m amazed if Iain’s outrage is fresh and new.

Partly because the Tories have complained for years about things like the UMF, such as when they published a pamphlet last year which (flatteringly) drew on my work for Tribune.

And partly because, despite the well-connected Iain’s predictions, it’s not at all probable that a Conservative government will scrap the UMF, whose official purpose is to help unions help vulnerable workers and promote their activities in doing so (and to be fair, the funding applications are vetted – they don’t just dish out cash upfront).

On Monday I spoke to Richard Balfe, David Cameron’s personal envoy to the unions and a very nice and approachable man. He played down the cost of the UMF, saying it costs around £12-16 million a year – a drop in the ocean with national debt on course for over £1 trillion.

Balfe also praised the role of unions in reaching out and finding vulnerable workers who need to be told their rights at work, saying they were a very effective way of reaching foreign workers who can’t speak English. He praised a UMF grant which funds a literacy programme he had been to visit.

In fact Balfe was very complimentary of the work unions do – perhaps unsurprisingly as he was at the TUC, but he is a union member (Unite) and sees himself as much as the unions’ envoy to Cameron as the other way round.

Both are responding: Cameron has told his shadow cabinet that they must not turn down requests for meetings from unions. And the unions have held well over 50 meetings with Tory shadow ministers so far this year, he says – in fact one “big union” (I can’t tell you which) has had more than 50 on its own.

None of this should surprise Tories, whose leader said last week he wanted “maximum  consensus” with unions over public sector pensions.

Update: Maybe this should surprise them though. Forgot to say, Balfe also said: “I want to knock out the stupid wing of the Tory party that regards the unions as their enemy”. I wonder who he has in mind. Hague? Dan Hannan? Philip “I’m going to be the most hated man in Britain” Hammond?

*The press release Iain cites mentions £2.46 million being given in the latest handout to 12 unions and the TUC. Of those 13 bodies, four – RMT, NUJ, GFTU and the TUC itself – are not affiliated.

Unison agrees with TaxPayers’ Alliance

Tuesday 15 September 2009

As I write, Brown is addressing the TUC Congress (I think). Unions have been drafting questions which hand-picked members of theirs are ready to ask him. Which questions get asked is down to the TUC president and officials, but I thought it’d be interesting to find out what the questions were.

I didn’t get very far, but I did manage to extract from Unison that they were planning to ask Brown if he will “make the bankers” pay; that is, ensure that they pay back the money they were bailed out with. (General secretary Dave Prentis said much the same thing himself).

That was yesterday. Today Matthew Elliott, chief executive of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, writes on ConservativeHome:

“Some estimates suggest that of the total £1.2 trillion made available to the banks, taxpayers could lose at least £200 billion… whether the banks siphon off our money directly in the form of massive government handouts or indirectly from charging us more for services and loans and paying us less interest on savings, it will be the British taxpayer that foots the bill for the hundreds of billions in toxic loans, credit default swaps, collateral debt obligations and whatever other financial schemes… It makes political and financial sense to be tough on the bonuses of the state-run banks. Bankers’ bonuses were hugely unpopular before the crash and they have become a matter of public interest since taxpayers’ money bailed them out from their own mistakes. If the government is to claw back any of that £200 billion, it means closely monitoring the spending of these banks to give them an extra incentive to end their reliance on state handouts.” (my emphasis)

Well, at least they agree on something: the bailout should be clawed back. Just the small matters of national pay bargaining, public sector pensions and whatnot where they part company.

No beer, no sandwiches – what now?

Sunday 13 September 2009

It’s TUC Congress time again! Unfortunately, extra unwanted distractions have prevented me this year from getting much of a grip on the inside track around this year’s congress in Liverpool. Which is a pity, because the top story this year is the Labour-union link.

Sam Coates’ intriguing interview with the GMB’s Paul Kenny and the Daily Mirror’s Derek Simpson scoop (quickly retracted) in which he wrote off both Labour amd Gordon Brown, have kept me busy wondering. What is the mood like in the no man’s land between Labour and its unions?

We could start by looking at the menu dished up at Friday’s lunch at Chequers for ten union bosses, including Brendan Barber, whose TUC is not actually affiliated to the Labour Party, despite the attitude of some of its staff and friendly hangers-on.

The Sun reports that balti was served, except for the “vegetarian” Derek Simpson who had non-meat lasagne. Vegetarian? Shome mishtake shurely? Simpson is a pescatarian: he eats fish and chips. In fact he loves fish and chips, and tends to insist on being served it wherever he goes – including last year’s TUC general council dinner, where his staff wrote “fish and chips” on his dietary requirements form.

In fact, the fact that he didn’t demand it on this occasion suggests Simpson might have been in a more conciliatory mood than his Mirror interview suggested (perhaps because by the time he turned up, his union was trying so hard to backpedal from what he’d said.)

I wonder what’s on the menu for this year’s general council dinner?

Actual news when I can find some. Sorry but life is hard right now.

The Sunday Times poaches my work (and still gets it wrong)

Monday 7 September 2009

The story on Unite’s general secretary election I did for Tribune last week continues to generate ripples (see below).

Not only have people within Unite been commenting on it, but Sunday Times political editor Jonathan Oliver followed it up in an article in yesterday’s paper.

In fact, so keen was Mr Oliver on my work that he lifted an entire quote from it – Rob Williams saying “The link with Labour is an absolute millstone round the neck of the union” he said. “It’s got us nowhere.” – without attribution. That’s not very nice is it. Oh, and the subs decided to make this the pull quote – the one pulled from the text and reprinted in a bigger type size, which is quite flattering really, or would be if they’d said where it came from.

Unfortunately, not even my reporting could save Mr Oliver from getting his story wrong. In the article, he names Jerry Hicks as “the frontrunner” in the contest. But on Saturday, Hicks failed to get the nomination of the United Left faction of Unite (admittedly after his supporters were, apparently, barred from entering the hustings meeting in Manchester). The remaining members elected Len McCluskey. With a big profile and a nomination in his pocket, McCluskey is the closest thing to a frontrunner Unite has. (More on this later)

This story seems to have fallen apart the day before it appeared on newsstands. Oh well, you can’t get it right every time.

P.S. I did email Mr Oliver about this, but no response as yet.

Update: There’s some intense debate going on at Socialist Unity as to whether it was right to exclude Hicks’ supporters or not. I haven’t got to the bottom of this yet (but my piece in Tribune this week hopefully will).

Update 2: Oliver has responded and takes my point. All is forgiven.

The fight for Unite the Union is on

Thursday 3 September 2009

The battle for Amicus is over. The battle for Unite is about to begin.

Well, actually that was the state of play as soon as Derek Simpson was re-elected Unite Amicus general secretary by a resounding 4.88 per cent of the membership. A quiet campaign for who should become the first single leader of Britain’s biggest union – and biggest donor to the Labour party – has been running since then, with the election a year away. And this weekend should see some interesting developments. Bear with me, there’s a lot to digest and I’m going to name a name which, for some of you, may be a surprise…

The contest for Unite seems rather more open than that for Amicus, because then there’s no single clear establishment candidate. Part of the reason is that Unite, although officially merged in May this year, is still in spirit two unions, Amicus and the T&G.

On the T&G side the candidate with the most ballast seems to be assistant general secreatary Len McCluskey, widely thought to be supported by his boss Tony Woodley. On the Amicus side is another AGS, Les Bayliss, who is jointly in charge of the finance department with the T&G’s Ed Sabisky. Trouble is, Bayliss does not seem to have the same backing from his boss,  Derek Simpson, as McCluskey has from Woodley. Some would say that makes a T&G victory more likely – and make no mistake, there are elements in Amicus who want to stop that.

Both Bayliss and McCluskey would consider themselves leftist candidates, but only McCluskey is seeking the nomination of United Left, the left-wing political faction within Unite formed out of two caucuses in Amicus and the T&G. Bayliss is seeking the nomination of Workers Uniting Group, which Derek Simpson helped found. Both groups are holding meetings this weekend, and United Left is set to pick a candidate.

But both support Labour. Two more candidates, Jerry Hicks and Rob Williams, don’t however. Hicks has form, as regular readers of this blog will know: he ran against Derek Simpson earlier this year. Williams doesn’t; he only rose to prominence after being sacked by his employer, Linamar in Swansea, and then reinstated following a union campaign (ironically involving Len McCluskey). Interstingly, both men are past or present union convenors and both are active members of socialist parties (Respect Renewal and the Socialist Party). Perhaps they will strike a deal? Who knows. Only Williams has said he wants Unite to disaffiliate from Labour, but as he comes to this contest as an outsider I doubt Labour HQ is too worried about that right now.

Oh, and did I mention deputy general secretary Jack Dromey, aka Mr Harriet Harman? I know he’s said to covet a parliamentary seat, but if he fails to get selected, well… Dromey ran against Tony Woodley in 2003 for T&G general secretary.

So what do I predict? McCluskey looks most likely to get the UL endorsement this weekend. That may lead to a flurry of activity as Amicus tries to find a “stop Len” candidate. Bayliss is currently negotiating with ex-Amicus GS candidate Paul Reuter, who has said for a while he wants to run.

But there’s another possibility. One insider predicts that United Left will break down due to the “tribal instincts” of its T&G and Amicus components. Unite, they say, is not united and never will be until it has one leader. And it’s true that the factions that merged to form it, T&G Broad Left and Amicus Unity Gazette, didn’t see eye-to-eye. In which case… more infighting before the candidates list is narrowed. Infighting which could draw in Unite’s current general secretaries – who won’t even be resigning at the same time. Simpson goes in December 2010, Woodley in January 2013. What if Woodley ends up having to work alongside Simpson’s preferred choice of successor and not his? I can already hear Jim Pickard sharpening his BlackBerry.

Whatever happens, it’s hard to see how Unite isn’t going to divide down Amicus/T&G lines, if only for one last time.

Update: Having linked to Hicks’ blog, I’ve been asked to point out that Paul Reuter has a blog too, right here.

Workers Uniting group didn’t like my article in Tribune, and have taken particular offence at my use of the term ‘more right-wing’. They also say they’re not having a hustings meeting. The ‘ more right-wing’ tag wasn’t perfect I admit but then no label ever is and I doubt any label I might use for them would be above criticism. Note that I said ‘more right-wing’ not ‘right wing’. As for the meeting, well, candidates are turning up, so is it a hustings or not? Decide for yourselves.