Posts Tagged ‘Conservatives’

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.


Jack Straw’s future and its implications for unions

Friday 30 July 2010

Shadow Justice Secretary (and shadow deputy prime minister, which is why he has a go at Nick Clegg at the despatch box sometimes) Jack Straw will not stand for the Shadow Cabinet this autumn, and will pursue other interests instead, I heard this week. When I asked a friend if he had any jobs lined up, he replied: “Yeah – on the backbenches.” So that’s pretty clear I guess.

This has implications. Jack Straw was one of the obstacles to a cross-party agreement on reform of the funding of political parties, when Labour was in power. The sticking point was donations from trade unions; Straw’s white paper on party funding protected it, and he didn’t budge on it in talks. The Tories wanted the total donation given by a union to be treated as a single donation and capped; Labour wanted it treated as lots of individual donations from union members who were political levy payers. Unions comfortably form the single biggest source of donations to Labour; without them, the party would go broke quite fast. Now Labour is in a minority, that funding model is going to be challenged. Within a year, we could see union donations capped almost out of existence.

Question is – will his successor as shadow justice secretary act the same way when the coalition government comes asking for talks on the very same subject?

Who could be the next in line? A quick scan of Labour MPs with a profile and a background in the law suggests David Lammy, Emily Thornberry, Harriet Harman – could they be relied on to fight to preserve the union link in its current form? (Harman probably yes, seeing as her husband was deputy general secretary of Unite till recently).

Whoever is party leader by then will of course have the final say. All the candidates have said the Labour-union link must be preserved – but that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be amended. And of course Labour alone cannot stop a new party funding bill from becoming law. Hence the shadow justice secertary’s crucial role, as constitutional affairs spokesperson, in deciding how much ground to cede.

Both Labour and the unions would lose if union donations were capped; if (as previously suggested) the cap were, say, £50,000 in a year, that would cut the value of the unions’ donations by hundreds of thousands if not millions of pounds. The unions would lose influence; Labour would face bankruptcy.

Mr Demos joins the ‘Con-Dems’

Friday 11 June 2010

Not too many raised eyebrows at the headquarters of non-aligned think-tank Demos at the news that their director Richard Reeves is to join Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg next month as a special adviser on £85,000 a year (a bit of a pay cut from his current job).

After all, Reeves was, I am told, seldom off the phone to Clegg, and is thought to have dined with David Cameron’s head of strategy Steve Hilton* on a regular basis.

But why is he doing it? Does a career in frontline politics beckon, perhaps – will he follow the path of so many SpAds and become a parliamentary candidate? For now, Reeves is working on political strategy – which may (or many not) have something to do with ensuring that Simon Hughes, the newly elected Lib Dem deputy leader regarded as somewhat to the left of Clegg, doesn’t become a liabiltiy to the coalition government.

*now one of David Cameron’s 18 special advisers, on £5000 a year more than Reeves

Unions not all ready for Cameron and Clegg

Thursday 13 May 2010

Britian’s trade unions enter into the shining new era of Dave and Nick on an unequal footing. I’ve written many times before about the steady work of Richard Balfe, David Cameron’s (deep breath) personal envoy to the trade union and co-operative movement, who has done the rounds of almost every single union, Labour-affiliated or otherwise. Unite, ineviably, said no*, as did shopworkers’ union USDAW and construction union UCATT.

The last two will have a lot of dealings with new Business Secretary Vince Cable (of whom more very soon) and Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith: IDS’ department is in charge of the Health and Safety Executive and BIS gets called on when companies like Woolworths start going to the wall.

However, this is about a lot more than whether ministers know abot the unions’ point of view and their shopping lists. In the public sector, a great many negotiating bodies exist to thrash out pay negotiations and much more. Unison, GMB and Unite, for example, head up the trade union side of the national joint council for local government. Every year they meet the employers’ wing of the Local Government Association and together they fail to agree a pay deal for that year. Other such negotiating boards and teams exist across central government and quangos, from HM Revenue and Customs to the Meat Hygiene Inspectorate.

Some unions have been busily ensuring that the Tories know of these union negotiators and who they are, in spite of their differences. Let’s just say that new Health Secretary Andrew Lansley and his ministers will probably know a lot of union officials by now.

Others less so; the Public and Commercial Services Union hasn’t introduced any of its negotiators to Tories, and general secretary Mark Serwotka has only had one or two meetings with them. Whether that’s down to suspicion or lack of effort I don’t know; but they are certainly suspicious of Tory plans for the public sector, fearing wholesale staff cuts and privatisation. (N.B. The Conservatives have already made hay out of taxpayer funding of PCS union officials and their work – Francis Maude, whose parliamentary questions got much of the information from the Labour government, tried to ressure the PCS that there was no malice in his activity, but apparently failed.)

So it looks like some unions will be on the front foot now, and others not. Whether that helps them get what they want is of course another matter entirely.

*or at least the former T&G section did – I was never sure whether or not there’d been meetings with people from the Amicus side. Not that Derek Simpson is remotely Tory-friendly, mind you; he isn’t. Maybe he wasn’t told.

Shadow cabinet minister: Lib Dem-Tory coalition “extremely improbable”

Tuesday 27 April 2010

On the campaign trail in Watford yesterday I bumped into Conservative Shadow Justice Secretary Dominic Grieve, who was out helping their candidate Richard Harrington in his bid to topple incumbent and junior minister Claire Ward (notional majority: 1,151).
Asked about the weekend’s newspaper headlines, which report Nick Clegg as saying he would back the Tories in the event of a hung parliament, Grieve all but rubbished the idea:”I think a coalition is extremely improbable”, adding: “On the face of it, the most likely outcome of voting Liberal is to shore up the Government, not us.”
None of this means that discussions between the parties on a coalition are not underway, but Grieve doesn’t sound very keen on cosying up to Nick Clegg and his policies, does he? It raises an interesting question which I’m totally unable to answer: we’ve heard a lot about Labour cabinet views on working with the Lib Dems, but what about the Shadow Cabinet?
Meanwhile, as The Guardian reported yesterday, Clegg has re-finessed his position by saying that we would be prepared to work with Labour as well (but not Brown).

(from the Tribune blog)

‘Big gay flashmob’ hits Tories

Sunday 11 April 2010

“Grayling out!” The sound of people  – especially young people, which at least half of them were – chanting for the sacking of the Shadow Home Secretary right outside Conservative Campaign Headquarters in Millbank Tower this afternoon suggests that old-fashioned issue-based gay rights activism is not dead. And beyond that, it raises a question: how successful have the Tories been at decontaminating their brand?

First what happened today. Over 200 people* gathered to protest today over the twin trigger events of Chris Grayling’s remarks about gay couples and David Cameron’s difficult Gay Times interview, which have both unexpectedly thrust LGBT rights into the spotlight of election campaign. But talking to the protesters, their concerns went to the heart of Conservative policy, or lack of it as they see it.

The protest took the form of a “kiss mob” – i.e. a flash mob where people kiss each other. As well as “Grayling out”, there were repeated chants of “I’m never voting Tory” and “come out David” (not that he was in the building; he was in Birmingham on campaign). One o the speakers was Anastasia Beaumont-Bott, founder of a Conservative gay rights group, who’s gone from Cameron torchbearer to (literally) shrieking denouncer of him in a short space of time.

One young lady who took part told me: “I was brought up Tory. I would’ve voted Conservative but they have no policies [on gay rights]. He’s just stuttered on every single policy.” Her kissing partner, who voted Conservative in the 2005 election, said: “The fact they don’t have any Conservative Party line as to how people should vote is a huge problem. David Cameron’s voting record is a huge problem.”

This last comment refers to the vote in the European Parliament censuring Lithuania over a Section 28-style law, which Tory MEPs refused to support – leading to the tricky interview above.

Complaints over lack of policies came back again and again. One protester and blogger, Scott from Vauxhall, south London, says: “They need to set out some actual things rather than be vague. Having some action and saying ‘this is what we’re going to do’. Another, one of those behind an anti-Tory Twitter and Facebook campaign, complains of what he calls the Tories’ associations with hard-right parties in the European Parliament and that vote. “What would change his mind? “If they actually come up with actual policies to support what they’re saying in the press.” He also said he wasn’t seeking to support any other party through the campaign.

Veteran gay rights protester Peter Tatchell went in search of the policies – he was invited to a meeting this morning with shadow chancellor George Osborne, shadow womens’ minister Theresa May and shadow environment secretary Nick Herbert. He was not impressed: “We couldn’t get any clear commitment”. Asked about allowing gay marriage, he sys Osborne offered to look at it, but stopped short of promising a formal review. This isn’t a party political point: Labour has also refused to change the law to allow it, as he pointed out. Osborne also stuck close to Labour in refusing to comment on the National Blood Service ban on gays giving blood.

The Tories did offer a commitment to tackle homophobic bullying in schools and to quash some convictions under repealed sexual offences laws. But Tatchell said these were “vague promises” and didn’t go far enough.

What’s interesting about this protest – apart from that it seems to have got a few young people interested in politics – is that it suggests David Cameron’s attempt to purge the Conservatives of their ‘nasty party’ image hasn’t entirely worked. Even one of their latest policies, tax breaks for married couples (and civil partnerships) was seen as discriminatory because it doesn’t apply to everyone else. Could it be, more than anything else, a testament to the power of the Internet to channel information (Grayling’s comments, Cameron’s Gay Times interview), radically reshape opinion, and be used as a campaigning tool? If so, this election campaign is getting very slippery. And we’re only on day six.

*Full disclosure: Including two friends of mine – three if you count Peter Tatchell. I didn’t interview the other two.

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.

Expenses: In the name of Gord, go

Tuesday 19 May 2009

Today Labour’s National Executive Committee meets to discuss dealing with expenses-happy MPs; I hear that Gordon Brown is going to be there (and not from one of the NEC, in case you’re wondering). Meanwhile the 33 NEC members have been deluged with thousands of emails from party members offering demands, suggestions and protestations about the conduct of their elected representatives.

The Prime Minister’s presence makes it likely that he will want the party, and the public, to see him as coming away from this meeting with a firm decision – his decision – on what to do. Expect the NEC to be given a plan of action and told to vote for it. No doubt it’s hoped that this will redress the balance between him and David Cameron, whose early apology and pledge to make MPs repay money has favoured him in the polls.

What are they going to decide? Two ‘extreme options’ can probably be ruled out. The first is to reselect all MPs, regardless of whether they’re under suspicion or not. The second is only to reselect an MP if the parliamentary standards commissioner decides they’re guilty of deliberately making an unjustified claim. The trouble is, how can you prove that? Will many MPs be caught out that way? I doubt it. In which case it’ll be seen as a get out of jail card for MPs, and Brown won’t get his positive headlines.

The NEC is moving towards approving guidelines for individual constituency parties to rule on whether they should try to reselect their MP (as reported in today’s Guardian). Of course, Labour’s high command isn’t going to leave it all to the constituencies to decide. But party activists and the NEC both want the power to be devolved to the grassroots.

Meanwhile, Brown faces the thorny problem of how to crack down on all MPs equally when that risks impacting on your own cabinet. How to deal with Hazel Blears’ dodgy second home claims and Jack Straw’s council tax bonanza? Perhaps the above solution is the neatest one. Is a constituency party likely to tell a cabinet minister they’ll be out of a job come June 2010, mindful of the violence that will wreak on the Westmnister scene and the humiliation it will cause for Labour? I doubt it. In which case maybe there will end up being one rule for ministers and another for backbenchers after all…

But I don’t know. We’ll see. Labour hasn’t planned a press conference for today. But keep your eyes glued to the TV.

Party funding: the backbench rebellion that never was

Tuesday 3 March 2009

People have been talking about the 130-plus Labour MPs who’ve signed a motion opposing the part-privatisation of Royal Mail as a great rebellion.  But the Government narrowly avoided just as big a rebellion in the Commons last night – which nobody in The Media noticed.

139 Labour MPs, plus 68 opposition MPs,  had backed an amendment tabled by Labour MP Gordon Prentice to Justice Secretary Jack Straw’s political parties and elections bill (as reported by David Hencke in The Guardian here). When this bill was first announced, Labour backbenchers hoped it would do something about the so-called “Ashcroft millions” channeled into target seats by Tory donor Lord (Michael) Ashcroft. But  there’s nothing in the bill that deals with tax exiles of UK nationality who fund parties. Nor is there much to stop large amounts of cash being funnelled into a constituency after the bill got watered down. Ashcroft may or may not be a tax exile (he won’t say). Lord Laidlaw (who says he won’t fund the Tories any more) certainly is. Prentice’s amendment was meant to fix that by banning ‘non-doms’ from making donations.

What happened? As often mysteriously happens with amendments the Government doesn’t like, MPs ran out of time. Prentice doesn’t think it’s mysterious, though. “We had a nice filibuster from Jack Straw, who spoke for 20 minutes about the Hayden Philips review [of party funding],” he said to me today.

The would-be rebels included Peter Hain, Denis MacShane and Parliamentary Labour Party chair Tony Lloyd – none exactly serial rebels. In fact, it was Lloyd’s own PLP secretariat who sent out a brefing note to Labour MPs telling them they should vote against. Vince Cable and most Lib Dems were on board, but no Tories.

The Government thinks Prentice’s amendments were unworkable. He disagrees, but he also asks why the Government hasn’t tried to tackle the problem itself. Meanwhile, the non-doms can rest easy.

Suggestions that this had anything to do with Prentice telling David Hencke (above) that Jack Straw’s behaviour was “surreal” are clearly wide of the mark.

P.S. Wealthy donors are not limited to the Tories. Lakshmi Mittal is perhaps the most famous (or infamous) Labour donor – and non-dom.

Labour-supporting union leader faces challenge

Friday 20 February 2009
Alan Ritchie

Alan Ritchie

No, not that one. Belatedly I see from Socialist Unity that Alan Ritchie, general secretary of construction union UCATT, is to be challenged at his next election by Mick Dooley, a London region organiser. Dooley first stood for election in 2004, and polled about half as many votes as Ritchie. If you believe Socialist Unity, which supports Jerry Hicks for Amicus gen sec, then Dooley is the staunch lefty candidate challenging the complacent Blairite that is Ritchie. I am sure the Ritchie camp will have something to say about that.

This is interesting for a number of reasons.

UCATT, which says it has 125,000 members,  is an unswerving supporter (including financially) of the Labour Party. After the second Warwick Agreement last year, it put out a press release declaring that they had made “significant progress” in persuading the government of the wisdom of their demands, and that “An outline of proposals to radically transform the construction industry was agreed.”

They declined to mention what any of this progress was, which is just as well because over six months on that progress is hard to see. The Gangmasters’ Licensing Authority still does not regulate the construction industry, which UCATT says means lots of workers being employed on a casual basis with no rights. The Health and Safety Executive is still far too light-touch for their liking, and doesn’t carry out nearly enough inspections. And so on.

But UCATT takes the loyalist union line: we pay our dues, we make our arguments but we don’t do cash for policies. UCATT is notable, in fact, in rebuffing the advances of Tory trade union envoy Richard Balfe – the only other union I know that hasn’t spoken to him is the T&G section of Unite.

It’ll be interesting to see if any of this comes up in the election campaign. Unite and UCATT are not the only unions where the left-of-Labour political caucuses are mobilising for a fight back this year. We could be witnessing the emergence of a new awkward squad (but it’s a big ‘could’).

Update: Oh yes, I forgot to say, Dooley has allegedly done the Aslef thing of getting into a punch-up with a union colleague.