Archive for August, 2010

Holiday time

Tuesday 17 August 2010

Forgot (as usual) to say, I’ve been on holiday since last week and will be until 31 August. Blogging will be suspended until then, although hopefully I’ll find time to post a book review…

Danny Alexander and the Lib Dem motion

Saturday 14 August 2010

Those of you who haven’t got their hands on a copy of Tribune this week, or who looked at the website and found some stories missing (slight technical hitch I believe) may be unaware of some developments in the run-up to the Lib Dem annual conference in Liverpool next month.

As I reported for Tribune this week – and as has been reported elsewhere – there are two motions which particularly challenge the direction of the government: one which criticises academy schools and totally rubbishes free schools as “wasting precious resources”, and one which calls on the coalition to:

“continue to work to ensure that the most vulnerable in society are not disproportionately affected by the government’s austerity measures and to ensure that the wealth and inequality gap does not widen.”

A nice way of warning them off doing anything regressive in the autumn spending review, due a few weeks later. The motion also calls for conference to:

“Insist that Liberal Democrat ministers are given the freedom and resources to commission research to fully assess the viability and practicalities of increasing taxation on wealth – including land values.”

What hasn’t been reported elsewhere is that when Lib Dem Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander saw the motion, he picked up the phone to the party policy office, who then got on the line to James Graham, the motion’s proposer. Graham isn’t just anyone: he’s a former member of the party’s federal executive and the secretary, website manager and press officer of the Social Liberal Forum, a group on the left of the party.

Graham says that after an “amicable” discussion, he agreed to insert an extra clause praising the coalition for preparing to make the Office of Budget Responsibility more independent – but did not take out any of the bits warning them not to beggar the poor. Look at the motion: it doesn’t praise all the budget, jut the bits it thinks are Lib Dem.

These sorts of motions could cause pro-coalition Lib Dem ministers a headache, because a) they don’t look confrontational and so are less likely to be opposed by the party chiefs; and b) once a motion is passed, it stands a fighting chance of getting in the party’s manifesto. Party rules require the federal policy committee to base policy on motions agreed at annual conference.

Is Ed Miliband about to get into bed with John McDonnell?

Wednesday 4 August 2010

Since the Labour leadership contest kicked off, the Trade Union and Labour Party Liaision Organisation, which goes between the party and its 15 affiliated unions has been sending questions to the candidates, including on industrial issues. Many of the answers have been, well, inconsequential in the wider context of the party’s future.

But not this time. Ed Miliband’s camp has (belatedly) responded to a question about the UK’s trade union laws, often called the strictest in Western Europe (including, as Ed Williams says in Tribune this week, by Tony Blair). The questioner asked: “What one restriction do you think most urgently needs lifting and why?”

Ed Miliband’s reply was received today, and in it he says:

“I am determined to make sure that the Trade Unions are able to fairly represent the interests of their members and the wider workforce. Of course industrial action is a last resort, but the right to strike is a fundamental human right which must be protected and I will make sure it is. The British Airways dispute showed that the rules governing strike ballots are in urgent need of reform.”

Brother David – the only other serious frontrunner, according to commentators and the Labour Uncut blog, has said no such thing, and merely comments on unions being a good thing.

Lefty Labour MP John McDonnell has a private member’s bill on this very subject, which seeks to extend legal protection for unions who have ballots for industrial aciton, in order to prevent more British Airways-style injunctions. So I asked his team if he intended to support the bill.

A spokesperson replied that he hasn’t seen the bill, but added: “I do know that he is indeed concerned with the rules governing strike ballots and that technicalities should not interfere with democratic balloting processes.”

Of the other candidates, Andy Burnham and Diane Abbott also says strike law should be looked at, and Ed Balls says unions should have better access to workers who want to join.

(from Tribune blog)

Social housing: the Conservatives go back on their word

Tuesday 3 August 2010

 David Cameron has signalled that secure tenancies in social housing – i.e. a house for life – may be a thing of the past. He says:

“At the moment we have a system very much where, if you get a council house or an affordable house, it is yours forever and in some cases people actually hand them down to their children.

“And actually it ought to be about need. Your need has got greater … and yet there isn’t really the opportunity to move.”

He added that he wanted “people to move through council housing rather than see it as something you get for life.”

Right or wrong, this is a direct contradiction of what the Tories promised before the election – and that was before they teamed up with the moderating influence of the Lib Dems.

In February I wrote a story based on a Labour Party leaflet saying that the Conservatives were interested in the ideas of Hammersmith and Fulham Council leader Stephen Greenhalgh and his plans to put social housing tenants on two months’ notice. Secure tenanceis, were under threat, it warned. Being a dutiful sort of reporter, I rang  CCHQ and asked for a reply. The speedy reply attributed to (then shadow housing minister) Grant Shapps read:

“These are unfounded and baseless scare tactics by an increasingly desperate Labour Party trying to frighten social tenants in an attempt to get them to vote Labour and shore up its disillusioned core vote.
“Conservatives recognise the importance of social housing and the security it provides. We will protect and respect the rights of social tenants. Many social tenants have great pride in their homes and the neighbourhood in which they live, and deserve to be encouraged.”

Shapps is now housing minister. Unless he distances himself from Cameron’s comments, it rather looks as though he has gone back on his word.

Needless to say, shadow housing minister John Healey (and minister at the time) is now saying he told you so.

The truth about the TUC congress and days of action

Tuesday 3 August 2010

Meetings, meetings, meetings. Unions large and small are currently meeting, with each other and internally, to decide on what motions they’re going to back at this year’s TUC Congress in Manchester. There’s a raft of motions up for debate which call for varying degrees of campaigning and co-ordinated action to defend against public sector job, pay and pension cuts.

However, reports in today’s Times that there’s to be an autumn of strikes by angry unions strike me (no pun intended) as a little overblown. (The Times article is behind a paywall, but it’s been heavily borrowed from for this piece in the Daily Mail.)

It’s one thing to propose a motion to the TUC. It’s another to get that motion passed. It’s yet another – if it does pass – to do something substantial to put that motion into effect.

The “day of action” on October 20 called for in one of the motions – which led the Times to talk of an autumn of strikes – cannot be a strike, because you need to hold a ballot to call a strike. And because unions have to give lots of notice to bosses for strike ballots and their results, it’s safe to say that an autumn of strikes is now looking near-impossible. They would have to agree joint strike action at Congress (no motion calls for strike action as such), then plan strikes, give notice of ballots, hold ballots, get yes votes, give notice again… you get the idea.

And sometimes there are upsets. In September 2008, as I reported at the time, the Prison Officers’ Association pushed an amendment that would change a vote for “joint action” to “joint strike action”. It failed to go through, after the Unite delegates voted for the amendment by a show of hands, Dave Prentis in the chair called a card vote, and they then “lost” their voting cards. The POA general secretary said Prentis should “get new glasses”.

The Public and Commercial Services Union, the GMB, RMT and Unison have all put up motions against the cuts. Those motions will almost certainly be composited together into one in the next few days. How strong the motion is and how much support it’ll get remains to be seen. However, the FT is already reporting that the TUC’s general council is going for a day of protests in March next year, rather than October. The PCS union, which tends to take a hard line and favour joint action where possible – is pressing ahead with protests on October 20 and 23.

Another year, another TUC, another spate of motions calling for action. We’ve been here before (as I wrote two years ago). There hasn’t been solid joint industrial action in the UK in defence of jobs, pay or pensions for a few years. Of course this year is different – there are Tories in power and big cuts on their way – but wait and see.