Len McCluskey’s article denouncing Ed Miliband in today’s Guardian merely puts into the public domain what the Unite Gen Sec has been saying for some time within the union. McCluskey and the Unite leadership are bitterly disappointed with the man they played such a big role in making Labour leader. McCluskey told a recent Executive Council (EC) meeting that if Miliband gives in to the Blairites, fails to offer a radical alternative to the Coalition and (as a result) loses the next election, Labour will be finished as a working class party and Unite will break its links with the party. He concludes his Guardian piece with a slightly toned-down version of that scenario:
“No effort was made by Labour to consult with trade unions before making the shift [ie - the statements by Balls and Miliband over the weekend, accepting the public sector pay freeze and hedging on Coalition spending cuts], notwithstanding that it impacts on millions of our members. It is hard to imagine the City being treated in such a cavalier way.
“This confronts those of us who have supported Ed Miliband’s bold attempt to move on from Blairism with a challenge. His leadership has been undermined as he is being dragged back into the swamp of bond market orthodoxy. And this policy coup may not be the end of the matter. Having won on the measures, new Labour will likely come for the man sooner or later. And that way lies the destruction of the Labour party as constituted, as well as certain general election defeat in my view. It is time for those who want a real alternative centred on investment, job creation and public intervention to end the slump – and a Labour party that will articulate that to get organised in parliament and outside.”
What McCluskey says is undoubtably true and certainly reflects the views of the vast majority of Unite members. But it’s scarcely the dramatic volte face that sections of the media are trying to make out: Unite remains committed to the Labour link for the forseeable future. McCluskey, when he stood for the general secretary’s position in 2010, was outspoken in his defence of the Labour link, though he made it clear that the days when union “representatives” on Labour’s NEC regularly voted against union policy, were numbered. From now on, he told hustings audiences, Unite delegates to the Party would be expected to fight for the union’s policies, and a much more assertive and openly pro-working class stance would be adopted.
McCluskey, an honest reformist, has made some real efforts to put that approach into operation. In December of last year, for instance, the EC overwhelmingly endorsed a document (“Unite Political Strategy”) drawn up by the union’s Political Director, Steve Hart. It opens with the following:
“The aim of our political strategy is clear –
- Winning Labour for working people
- Winning working people for Labour
- Building a broad alliance to defeat the Tories and their policies
- Winning a Labour government which will govern in the interests of working people and towards a socialism for the 21st century
“But, for too long, Unite has talked; now we intend to carry through detailed plans to take forward our strategy.
“For several years Unite has, along with others, talked of ‘reclaiming Labour’ for the values of ordinary working people and for policies which advance their interests. This reflects the fact that the record of the last Labour government was, for the most part, a bitter disappointment for all those, including Unite’s predecessor unions, which had such high hopes in 1997. Apart from the wider failures, ranging from the uncritical embrace of the City through to the privatisation of public services and the Iraq War, trade unions were generally treated with disdain by the government. Moreover, trade union-supported candidates found it harder than ever to be selected for parliamentary seats, something which has led to a huge change in the social make-up of the Parliamentary Labour party.
“However, we must acknowledge that for all the talk of ‘reclaiming’ the Party, little progress was made. This has led to great frustration within the union, the more so since the Party’s requests for financial support from our union and others have continued unabated. So it is time for a change.
“The times are favourable for a renewed effort to reconnect Labour with the concerns of our members and the working-class more generally. The crash of 2008 has highlighted the failure of neo-liberalism to almost everyone. And in Ed Miliband Labour has a new leader anxious to put the ‘New Labour’ years behind us and embrace a new and more radical political approach. There is also a growing recognition that Labour cannot win again without addressing the loss of at least four million working-class votes between 1997 and 2010. In reclaiming Labour now, we are pushing against at least a half-open door. The crisis and the Coalition’s reactionary austerity agenda is pushing millions of people to look at politics in a new way, and the ‘Occupy’ movement has caught the public imagination. On the other hand, forces more-or-less openly hostile to our agenda remain strong within the PLP, and are well-financed outside Parliament by groups like Progress. The battle for Labour’s future direction is therefore undecided, and it is right that Unite, as the Party’s largest affiliate, should play the fullest possible part in the struggle for Labour’s soul.
“We are therefore already reinvigorating our political work at all levels after a period in which it was over-concentrated on top-level contacts at the expense of any strategy. We have initiated the formation, with other unions, MPs and interested parties, of the Centre for Labour and Social Studies (CLaSS) as a think-tank which can develop the new ideas needed to shape a renewed socialist agenda in the 21st century. We expect it to start producing valuable work in the course of 2012. We have also made efforts to bring together a group of Labour MPs committed to reconnecting the Party with working-class communities – this has taken its first steps, although progress remains unsatisfactory to date.
“Now we must do more. Our union needs a comprehensive strategy to advance our political work, reclaiming the Labour Party as an instrument of social progress which defeats the Tory Coalition government at the next general election and then governs in the interests of working people.”
Hart’s document then goes on to outline a quite detailed and practical strategy for extending the union’s influence within the Party, including co-operation with other unions to secure the adoption of union (or “union-friendly”) candidates in winnable seats, making Labour Party work the first item on every Unite Regional Committee agenda, winning 5,000 Unite members to Labour Party membership by December 2012, a regular Party members’ newsletter, ensuring the best representaives for the National Policy Forum and “building alliances with other affiliates and with community organisations and with the CLP’s and appropriate pressure groups to win specific policies.”
The document closes with the following exhortation:
“Unite will always be very clear that winning back the 5 million lost voters, reconnecting with working class voters, ending the crisis of working class representation, winning back Labour for trade union values, are tasks that require profound organisational change by Unite and in our relationship with Labour.
“Winning a Labour government which will govern in the interests of working people and towards socialism for the 21st century is our objective – the strategy outlined here is our best shot towards that aim.”
Hart’s document remains Unite policy, but it has to be said that little has been done to impliment it since it was passed by the EC in December. This has been, in part, because of Unite’s organisational inertia, its regional autonomy (which severely restricts the extent to which the EC can enforce policy) and – it has to be admitted – a distinct lack of enthusiasm for the Labour Party even amongst activists. As a result more effort has been put into chumming-up with various “left” (and not-so-”left”) MPs in an effort to recreate the Tribune Group circa 1959, than in organising an intervention into the Party. The situation is not helped by the baleful influence of ‘Chief of Staff’ Andrew Murray, an unreconstructed Stalinist and one-time ‘Respect’-supporter who has no alternative to the union’s intervention into the Labour Party, but has no interest in it beyond a wish to see it fail.
Meanwhile, informal negotiations have begun between Unite and the PCS, the non-affiliated civil service union. The prospect of bringing the PCS into Unite (presumably as a distinct Industrial Sector) may also be a factor militating against a more vigorous Labour Party orientation.
What McCluskey has said and written about Miliband and Labour is all true, and needs to have been said. But the truth is, the union has no coherent alternative to a serious orientation to Labour, as outlined in Hart’s document. There is no other realistic prospect for re-establishing working class political representation in the forseeable future. The strategy needs to be implemented as a matter of urgency.
PS: now Kenny of the GMB is threatening disaffiliation.
Gill George, Unite Exec member [actually, ex-Exec: see Pete Gillard's comment below -JH], is a comrade that we at ‘Shiraz’ would have many differences with (she’s a member of the SWP for a start). But this contribution to the United Left email list is timely and eminently sensible:
On 1st December, we were collectively celebrating a successful mass strike.
We’d achieved superb working unity across 28 unions. We had massive public
support, with people increasingly glad to see anyone fighting against a
vicious Tory government. We had significant and growing support from private
sector workers – for the same reasons. We got the government rattled.
A few weeks on, and we’re in real trouble. November 30th needed to be the
first step in building a serious fight to roll back all the attacks we face
- and, I’d like to think, the first step in ditching a government that is
the enemy of workers. Instead, we’ve got the General Secretary of the TUC
and the General Secretary of the biggest public sector union desperately
scrabbling around to achieve any kind of a settlement (no matter what the
cost to their members and other workers). We can still pull this situation
back and rebuild this fight, but we’re not in the situation of strength of a
few weeks ago.
A discussion around whether or not Unite has sold out misses the point. Our
class is facing a massive betrayal that risks tearing the heart out of our
movement. The question for the Left in Unite is, are we fighting tooth and
nail to stop the betrayal from Barber and Prentis? Are we standing shoulder
to shoulder with PCS, and doing so publicly and proudly? Are we working
overtime to get the message to every one of our public sector members, ‘This
fight goes on and this union backs you every inch of the way?’. Any pretence
that nothing’s changed since the last Executive Council meeting (and since
the release of the excellent EC statement) just seems to me to be defying
Let’s think through the implications of what the Tories are about. There are
six million public sector workers in the UK. A majority are union members.
Almost all public sector workplaces are unionised and have trade union
recognition. Union density is close to four times higher than the average in
the private sector. It’s easy to miss the importance of this in a primarily
private sector union, but public sector workers are at the heart of the
trade union movement.
The attacks on public sector workers aren’t an accident. Like everyone else,
I go around saying that the Tories are trying to make workers pay for the
bankers’ crisis. The reality, though, is something rather more systematic
than this. We have a government that’s trying to smash the organised working
class. Think back to Thatcher, the Ridley plan, and the salami tactics of
taking on workers a section at a time – culminating in the catastrophic
defeat of the 84/85 miners strike. We’re now seeing Cameron’s equivalent.
Cameron’s rather bolder than Thatcher, with a plan of going in hard and
wiping out trade union organisation in the public sector core of our
movement. The plan will have been many years in the making. They’ve already
given the game away about what happens next: 710,000 public sector jobs
going, the imposition of regional and local pay, the removal of facility
time from public sector reps, a further two years of pay cuts, a continuing
assault on public sector services, and privatisation of the public sector on
a massive scale. This is no secret – they’re arrogant enough to boast about
it. If we don’t fight and win on pensions, we can be very certain what their
If the Tories get away with this level of destruction in the relatively well
organised public sector areas of our movement, does this have implications
for private sector and voluntary sector trade unionists? Surely, yes. The most deprived areas of the UK depend very heavily on the public sector both for jobs and to hold up pay rates. Bring in regional pay, ditch a load of public sector jobs, privatise everything that moves – this drives down pay across the board, for all workers. Slash spending for services – that cripples the voluntary sector too. Smash up facility time and national pay bargaining and decent working conditions in the public sector, and there’ll be plenty of private sector bosses who will follow that example. And maybe most important, what about the impact on confidence? If we allow a high profile defeat for six million public sector workers, there is a strong risk that the message goes out loud and clear to other workers, ‘We can’t win, there’s no point in fighting’.
As a Left union, we cannot allow this to happen. This is not about four separate trade disputes that happen to be on at the same time – Len McCluskey (and the TUC) recognised this when the November 30th strike was announced at Congress; our own Exec recognised this when it issued its supportive statement in early December. I know there’s an ongoing debate amongst EC members about whether or not to have an EC meeting to discuss this situation. Well, good God almighty, if our union can’t respond to the tragic betrayals we’re seeing in parts of the TU movement, and we can’t publicly ally ourselves with PCS, and we can’t give a strong public lead to the unions which are wavering – then surely our Exec has to sort this out. If this turns into a defeat, it is a massive, massive defeat for the trade union movement as a whole. It is unthinkable that we allow this to happen.
And what about the message that’s going out to our own public sector members? It’s certainly not as clear and sharp as the EC statement. In Health, we were able to exert enough lay pressure to get a last minute phone conference of NISC (National Industrial Sector Committee) members to discuss whether or not we should sign the ‘Heads of Agreement’ document. My strong impression is that we were put under pressure to sign. We had the frighteners put on us. The National Officer told us that this was the best we could get through negotiation, and if we didn’t sign up to it then and there, the Government had made it clear that they would impose a worse deal, remove protection for older workers coming up for retirement, and exclude Unite from any future negotiations.
The National Officer emphasised as strongly as she could that if we fought on, we would be isolated and on our own. It was down to lay members to challenge this line. NISC members argued that this was a dispute across the whole of the public sector, with huge opportunities for a stronger fight through unity of our sectors within Unite and with the other unions still up for a fight. This wasn’t the message from the National Officer. The resilience of our lay activists in the face of the bleak and defeatist line from the Officer was impressive. One after another, NISC members rejected what was on offer in very robust terms. The NISC Chair summed up the debate by saying, ‘It’s the overwhelming view – no, that deal is not acceptable’. The debate touched on the need to set a date for further strike action (but, interestingly, we were told by the National Officer that this wasn’t a matter for us, it was for the Executive to decide on further action).
I was genuinely disappointed by how that strong fighting spirit was watered down by the time it reached the ‘Action Alert’ a few days later. This reported a ‘lack of progress’ and that we had to ‘consult fully’, that we ‘will not be bounced’ etc. It didn’t say, as it should have done, ‘Nothing’s changed; we reject’. I hope lay members can hold the line in Health. We’re meeting again on 5th January for a special pensions meeting. I’m anticipating that we’ll face the same negative message as before at National Officer level. You know what? If we met in the knowledge that our own Executive Council was fighting like hell to maintain unity and ensure that no section of our members was left isolated and facing defeat, it might actually be quite helpful.
This dispute will have far reaching consequences, whether we win it or lose it. The outcome will shape the future for our movement as a whole for very many years to come. Should the EC call a special meeting to discuss how it can support and build the most important dispute most of us have faced in our lifetimes? Yes, of course it should.
Unite has issued a statement saying it felt “bounced” into making a decision on civil servants’ pensions.
In a letter to members, national officer Mike McCartney said the TUC was asked to give a written agreement by 10am on Monday that every union would recommend its executive accept the government’s offer and that they would not take further industrial action whilst talks were in progress.
He said: “If we did not sign by the deadline then it would be concluded we rejected the agreement and would be outside the discussions. Whilst there could be a basis for agreement at some point there are still ten important issues that are outstanding.
“Furthermore I also point to an important fact that none of the three issues that made industrial action necessary on 30th November 2011 have been addressed.
“Unite’s stance is we felt we were being bounced into an artificial deadline by the government so that a statement could be given in the House of Commons.”
He goes on to say he hopes to continue negotiations but that nothing can be agreed until members have been consulted.
Earlier this afternoon, Unite said all talks with the government are off until the New Year.
The union yesterday withdrew from a deal reached on Monday after a letter from Eric Pickles altered a key element to proposals, without their consultation.
Despite the withdrawal of the letter, Unite, together with UNISON and GMB, suspended the deal saying they had lost trust in the government, which had hoped to sign the deal off by the end of the year.
Following that suspension, Unite members have this afternoon been told: “After consultation with lay membership, we have indicated to the employers that we will continue our suspension until an emergency Local Authority National Sector Committee can be called as early as possible on the New Year.”
You can read our coverage of yesterday’s developments here
- Unions condemn rise to pensions contributions for civil servants
- UNISON, Unite and GMB withdraw from pensions deal
- BREAKING NEWS: Unite police workers to strike tomorrow over pay
- BREAKING: TUC pensions summit – “real progress, but no deal yet”
- BREAKING: pension deal for NHS workers “approved” by union negotiators
|20 December 2011|
| A message from Dave Prentis, UNISON general secretary
Update on NHS pension scheme
Health unions, including UNISON, have agreed to consult on government ministers’ final pension proposals at the conclusion of negotiations.
Dave Prentis UNISON general secretary
Usually reliable sources are warning that certain union bureaucrats (noteably Dave Prentis of Unison and Brendan Barber of the TUC) are arguing that ‘we’ve gone as far as we can’ and that a settlement should now be reached on the pensions issue. Reportedly, the government have told the PCS that if they don’t settle tomorrow (Monday 19 December) all talks will cease and the “concessions” that have been offered will be withdrawn.
Prentis and Barber have, allegedly been arguing for acceptance of the government’s latest offer. The NUT leadership also seems to be wavering, but the NASUWT, UCU and PCS appear to be holding firm. Unite, if it stands by its recent Executive Council statement, should oppose any sell-out. The position of the the GMB is not known.
The following would seem to confirm the rumours:
|16 December 2011|
|A message from Dave Prentis, UNISON general secretary
Local government and health pensions update
I wanted to give you an update on negotiations in local government and health on pensions.
Dave Prentis UNISON general secretary
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UNISON, UNISON Centre, 130 Euston Road, NW1 2AY, United Kingdom.
Meanwhile the following statement is being circulated and should be supported:
Sign this statement:
The government’s “final offer” is no improvement. There is no extra money on offer. The government still wants public sector workers to work longer, pay more and get less. They haven’t moved on core issues:
* Fifty percent rise in pension contributions.
* Normal pension age to rise to the state retirement age. Retirement at 68 for those 34 and under.
* Pensions indexed at CPI instead of RPI. A cut for all existing pensioners. We agree with those union general secretaries who are against accepting this offer. We ask all union general secretaries, if it was right to strike against these proposals on November 30th how it can be right to accept them now? Ordinary trade union members have demonstrated their determination to resist these unfair and unnecessary changes; we call on our trade union leaders reject the Government’s bullying tactics and reject their unacceptable offer.
Initial Signatories: Alex Kenny NUT Executive member (Inner London) Andrew Baisley Camden NUT branch secretary Dave Harvey NUT Executive member (Outer London) Martin Powell-Davis NUT Executive member (Inner London) Mark Campbell UCU Executive member Liz Lawrence UCU Executive member Sean Vernell UCU Executive member Loraine Monk UCU Executive member Christine Vie UCU Executive member David Armstrong UCU Executive member Guy Stoate UCU Executive member
Sign the statement here: http://bit.ly/sVyIla <http://t.ymlp261.net/hshaiaeswqaoauuaiamm/click.php> View the signatories here: http://bit.ly/rJ8SGJ <http://t.ymlp261.net/hswalaeswqalauuaramm/click.php>
The National Shop Stewards Network (supported by Right to Work and Workers Liberty) are calling a protest at the TUC’s offices 2pm, Monday 19th December: Congress House, 23-28 Great Russell Street. WC1B 3LS
‘This is probably the most important dispute the construction industry has seen for 30 years in defence of the national agreement’.
That’s how Keith Gibson, one of the sacked Lindsey workers, summed up the significance of their battle to fellow workers at the mass meeting this morning (Monday 22nd June). The mass meeting was followed by the symbolic burning of hundreds of letters telling each of the 647 workers that they had been sacked and had to re-apply for their jobs today.
The Lindsey lock-out has generated a wave of solidarity action from other sites with walk-outs taking place at the many locations on Monday including:
• 400 workers at two LNG plants in west Wales – South Hook and Dragon
• 200 contractors at Aberthaw power station in the Vale of Glamorgan, south Wales
• 200 contractors at Drax and Eggborough power stations near Selby, North Yorkshire
• Workers at Fiddlers Ferry power station in Widnes, Cheshire
• Contract maintenance workers at the Shell Stanlow Refinery in Ellesmere Port, Cheshire
• 60 contract maintenance workers at Didcot A power station in Oxfordshire
• More than 1,000 workers at the Ensus biofuel site in Wilton, Teesside
• 900 contract workers at Sellafield Nuclear Plant in Cumbria
• 90 workers at Ratcliffe Power station Nottinghamshire
The workers have been locked out after taking solidarity strike action in support of 51 Shaw’s workers who have been made redundant. The redundancies, which have taken place while other contractors have been taking people on in defiance of agreements to re-deploy existing workers first, are seen as deliberate victimisation. The Shaw’s workers are being targeted for the strikes earlier this year in defence of jobs and the national agreement.
According to Keith Gibson writing in The Socialist the workers are demanding the withdrawal of all redundancies, a stop on all overtime, and the sharing out of the work remaining on the HDS3 Project.
The dispute comes after GMB and UNITE shop stewards from across the industry had voted to ballot for strikes after failing to reach a deal with the employers to renew the national Engineering construction agreement that has been in place since 1981. The issues in dispute included a proposed pay freeze and the employer’s refusal to give any guarantees on job security.
Specifically the unions want the employers to agree to implement the Posted Workers Directive properly within the industry by ensuring that all workers receive everything that the agreement says they are entitled to. The employers were only willing to offer a code of practice on this rather than make it binding.
Whether or not the Lindsey dispute represents a concerted attempt by the employers as a collective to jump the gun and provoke a battle on their terms, or on the contrary, it is Total management who have jumped the gun is a moot point.
A leaked circular from the employer’s organisation that stewards have obtained had warned companies to resist provoking battles on any other issues till the national agreement had been dealt with.
Whatever Total management’s original motives for the sackings, this dispute will be a test of solidarity on both sides. If the strikes spread and stay solid, this will pile the pressure on Total from the other companies and the government to back down and settle. But if the solidarity wave falters, then other employer’s might seize the opportunity to press ahead with their own victimisations and to weaken the ability of the unions to defend and extend the national agreement.
The employers are very frightened of the levels of solidarity that have been displayed so far and fear it spreading. The Times reports that: ‘While most of the power plants are continuing to operate as normal because a majority of staff were still working, power industry sources said that if the disruption escalated into an official strike, unscheduled plant closures could result because more workers would be reluctant to cross picket lines.’
The govermnent has also adopted a much more concessionary tone than over the January strikes when Mandelson, along with his poodles amongst some sections of the far left, denonced the strikers for xenophobia.
This time round Mandelson seems to be concentrating on getting Total back to the negotiating table and even Gordon Brown’s spokesperson says that: “This is a matter between the management and workers, but we would hope it can be resolved as quickly as possible. It continues to be our view that the parties do need to talk – ideally through Acas.”
Amazing, isn’t it, what an electoral disaster and the need for funds to fight an upcoming general election, can do for union government relations.
So, at this stage in the dispute, the forces that could be ranged against the strikers are far from united.
Phil Whitehurst, of the GMB, summed up the determination and solidarity of the locked out workers when he told the mass meeting: “We came out together. If we are going back, we’re going back together. There’s no reapplying. There’s no cherry-picking of jobs.”
The stakes are very high.
This is a chance to stop the ‘race to the bottom’.
These two contributions from the Spectator’s Fraser Nelson are well worth reading.
They provide a welcome antidote to Guardianista style left of centre desperation of the Poly Toynbee type which predicts a generation of Tory rule.
Nelson knows that the logic of the class struggle will force Cameron onto adopting policies that will make him very unpopular very fast. The Spectator editor can also see that the pressure of Tory attacks on the pubic sector workers will have big ramifications for what happens in the Labour Party too.
There are important points for socialists here. The timescale is far too short for political perspectives based on building a brand new political labour movement from scratch. The job of socialists is to do what we can to make the existing labour and trade union movement capable of resisting the coming Tory war on the working class. A first step could be made by a building a trade union campaign in defence of jobs and for a labour victory around the idea of ‘vote labour and fight to defend our unions, jobs and services’.
The choice Cameron faces now that we’re over the cliff
Fraser Nelson 11:56pm
British politics is currently suspended in one of those strange Road Runner moments, when we’ve run over the cliff but haven’t looked down. From April 2011, spending on public services will start to fall by a cumulative 7 percent over three years, according to Budget 2009. And given its fairytale economic assumptions (trampoline recovery, etc) the real cuts could be far greater. If the Tories protect health (as they say they will), then the cuts will be a cumulative 10 percent over transport, defence, education, police etc. This will dominate the next parliament. Huge schools cuts, huge military cuts – and all the time at the risk of the credit rating agencies pulling the plug. We don’t have to wait for the Tory manifesto, we know the parameters. The only variable is whether this 10 percent cut over three years will be more like 15 percent. This is not insider information, but a basic economic fact, apparent to anyone with p226 of the Budget and a calculator. Sure, you have to factor in extra debt interest (as the IFS did), but the implications are clear, and huge. Yet, as far as I can tell, it has not entered the political narrative, anywhere.
In a piece for the Daily Telegraph tomorrow, I look into Cameron’s future a little bit. He is going to be hated, because no one can cut to the extent he has to and be liked. His first term will be a war with the unions, who by then may have taken over the Labour Party entirely. It seems impolite to say so, but he is going to be a hatchet man. Not out of choice, but because he has to – at a minimum – carry out the cuts of Budget 2009. And if he wants to assuage the credit rating agencies, who will be the true masters of Britain, he’ll have to cut still further. It doesn’t matter if his heart isn’t in it; it doesn’t matter if he and Steve Hilton would rather be sharing the proceeds of growth. Events have overtaken them. Their options narrow by the month. The hatchet is waiting, behind the door of No10, and – like it or not – Mr Cameron will be judged by how effectively he wields it.
I’ll leave CoffeeHousers with a parting thought. Cameron knows that these cuts are ahead of him, knows he has a Thatcher-style mission with about a quarter of the preparatory time that Thatcher had. (Sure, he’s been leader since Dec 2005, but the scale of fiscal surgery only became clear over the last few months). So what’s his strategy? Does he shut up about it, and not let talk about Tory cuts enter the election narrative? You can see the temptation: no-one wants to talk about how they’re going to get into office and impose the sharpest education and home office cuts in postwar history. And you can bet that Brown will keep quiet about the cuts which Budget 2009 committed him to, if he wins.
But if Cameron does keep quiet now, and springs the cuts agenda on the public after the election, it could look like a discretionary move that the Tories embarked on for fun. In my view, he needs to make three things clear:
1) That these are Brown’s cuts, needed to clear up the mess that Brown made. The Tories aren’t doing this for a jaunt.
2) The alternative to making the cuts will be even worse – i.e. national bankruptcy, losing the AAA rating, debt for our children, IMF bailout, the works. The threat is abstract, but needs to be made real.
3) That only the Tories can clear up this mess because they will level with the public about the state of the finances. It’s the Tories job in history: to clean up the mess Labour made.
Cameron could start talking now about the cuts, so the public aren’t surprised when the hatchet comes down in the first Tory budget. Or he could keep quiet, then take a “Oh my God, you’ll never guess what we found in Brown’s Budget – oh, we have to cut – let’s unleash Hammond” mock-surprise approach. So what should his strategy be? Cameron does, of course, read Coffee House, and this will be one of the trickiest questions he faces. So, suggestions please.
UPDATE: I should have been a little more specific in the question. It’s not so much how Cameron cuts, but how he manages to convey to the public that these are Brown’s cuts, made necessary by Brown’s failings. Defining your opponent’s past record is a crucial task for a new government, and Brown powerfully caricatured the Major years as the Long Black Wednesday. So Cameron needs to say: “Brown has taken us to the brink of collapse, these cuts are to save us.” How does he best get this message across, and should he start now, during the campaign or after the election?
David Cameron will need a scowl and a hatchet to stop us going bust
The country doesn’t have a vacancy for a nice guy – it needs a ruthless leader with a sense of urgency, argues Fraser Nelson.
By Fraser Nelson
Published: 7:30PM BST 27 May 2009
It has not taken him long to find his inner brute. Take, for example, the four Tory MPs whose careers have been brought to a premature end over the expenses fiasco. When asked, Mr Cameron says – with just a hint of malice – that he had “a conversation” with them. It may not be long before others are treated to a similar chat.
Very little, in fact, remains of the original Cameroon mission. It was forged in the days when serious people argued that Gordon Brown had somehow been a wise Chancellor. To challenge his orthodoxy with talk of cuts, it seemed, was a recipe for electoral defeat. It was time to change the message and (as George Osborne liked to say) “educate the party”, so activists would stop focusing on the level of state spending. Now, both leadership and activists are resolved to making the sharpest cuts attempted by any post-war government.
For a party to change mission like this without changing leadership is a remarkable feat, and it highlights one of Mr Cameron’s greatest skills: his versatility. He demonstrated this at the 2007 party conference in Blackpool, where he proposed inheritance tax cuts, Wisconsin-style welfare reform and Swedish-style school reform in the space of a week. It stunned Gordon Brown into cancelling the election, and laid down a marker. Should events change again, Mr Cameron is more than capable of shifting with them.
As the economic outlook blackens, it is horribly clear to Mr Cameron that his destiny is to be hated. While no announcements have been made, the Tory plan is for a 10 per cent reduction in spending across education, defence, home office and transport. If the national debt is to be reduced, as Mr Cameron is promising, then his austerity agenda will have to go far deeper, with the NHS budget being downsized and the public sector pensions overhauled. Herds of sacred cows will have to be led to the slaughterhouse.
It does not take much political imagination to work out what the response will be. There will be teachers and nurses protesting in the streets, holding effigies of men dressed in Bullingdon tailcoats. The unions will devote their energies to forcing Cameron into a Heath-style U-turn. Government, for the Tories, could well turn into one long, painful battle.
It will be a war of nerves, and it starts now. Mr Cameron needs to project resolve, because any hint of weakness will invite chaos. If the unions regard him as a soft touch who will crumble if enough teachers chain themselves to enough school gates, they will deploy the full theatrics. The public will be more sympathetic, but only if the Conservatives level with them beforehand. If a cuts agenda is sprung on voters as a nasty surprise, then punishment will come at the ballot box.
All this explains the recent ratcheting up of language and promises about how Mr Cameron intends to fundamentally redesign politics. It is the only possible narrative to explain the harsh spending decisions he will have to make – that politics has failed, and therefore he is re-engineering the whole system. This will mean more than sending people text messages to inform them of the passage of the Finance Bill. It will mean dissolving empires of bureaucracies and transferring power back to people by spending a lot less of their money.
We have, of course, heard before from a charismatic young leader intent on renewing Britain’s democracy. In the mid 1990s Tony Blair was full of similar promises, talking excitedly about constitutional reform and, for example, overhauling welfare. Doubtless, in opposition, he meant it. But even with a landslide majority, Mr Blair accomplished almost nothing. “Tony had the option of an easy route,” a Blairite privy counsellor tells me. “Cameron will have a gun to his head. If he doesn’t cut state spending, Britain goes bust.”
This is the crucial difference. Given the choice, Mr Cameron probably would salvage as much of Plan A as he could and continue to increase spending (he suggested as much only two months ago in Cardiff). But this option has been removed. The credit ratings agencies are demanding that Britain’s debt starts to fall – and this can only mean brutal cuts. If they are not satisfied, the country’s AAA status could be revoked, the cost of borrowing will soar and the public finances will tip over the precipice.
So Mr Cameron has the rhetoric. He has the incentive: if he is forced into the arms of the IMF, his government will be judged a failure. What he lacks are the policies, and the sense of urgency.
Internal Tory discussions still talk about five-year horizons – a relic from the Gordon Brown days where plans for 2020 were discussed with a straight face. Reagan turned around America in four years; Britain won a world war in less than six. Cameron needs that kind of ambition. The most heartening analogy I have heard is from one shadow minister who thinks his job will be so torrid that he is unlikely to survive very long. So best be radical, he said, play each day like it was your last. “England played the worst cricket in the late Eighties, always playing not to lose,” he explained. “We could be the same. But if we play defensively, not to lose the next election, we’ll achieve nothing.” This is precisely the right attitude. There can be no autopilot when the aircraft is in a nosedive.
In many ways, Cameron faces a task far harder than that which confronted Margaret Thatcher. She was elected three years after the IMF bailout, and so the public finances were being restored to health. She was chosen as leader specifically to bring radical change, and had four years to assemble a team and prepare for the ordeal. Mr Cameron originally assembled a team for the political equivalent of a game of croquet; the same people now find themselves dropped on a rugby pitch.
Britain no longer has a vacancy for a nice guy. And, unfortunately for Mr Brown, no vacancy for someone whose economic policies have led us to disaster. Something else is needed: someone with a sense of mission and urgency. Someone who can explain why cuts, however painful, are better than the alternative. So we had best get used to David Cameron’s new scowl. It is perhaps cruel and unfair, but it is true none the less: the only tool worth using when he makes it through the door of Number 10 is a hatchet. Whether he likes it or not, Mr Cameron will be judged on how effectively he wields that axe.
Fraser Nelson is political editor of ‘The Spectator’
This week the Communication Workers Union (CWU) was due to send a clear message to the Labour Government and Labour MP’s that it would not stand idly by and allow them to push through the part-privatisation of Royal Mail.
The union seemed poised to support a call to withdraw support from all Labour MPs who supported privatisation. On may 28th the union executive voted to support a motion to this effect.
The actual text of the motion says this:
99 This Conference instructs the incoming National
Executive Council that any Labour MP who does not support the
Early Day Motion on the part privatisation of the Post Office will not receive
either financial or physical help from the CWU and or CWU Branches in the
forthcoming general election.
In a bizarre twist, yesterday the General Secretary Billy Hayes managed to engineer an about face. The union executive will now be asking for the motion to be remitted and if it is not, they will ask conference to vote it down.
Billy justified this change of tack with a completekly spurious line of reasoning that allows him to sound like he’s saying the motion is actually ‘too soft’. He said that motion 99 only taked about the EDM and it was possible that people could support the EDM, but end up backing the government in a commons vote.
Most experienced left wing executive members immediately saw this as nothing but a transparent attempt to take the political pressure off Gordon Brown and voted to maintain support for motion 99. As one astute observer of CWU affairs put it after the executive meeting: ‘Alan Johnson has been on the phone to Billy…’
You don’t have to be a genius to work out what the messaage sent to Billy Hayes was. Something along the lines of ‘we don’t want any bad headlines for Gordon from the CWU’. What would remain unsaid would be the implication that if you play ball with us we might play ball with you. If Billy had argued the case like an honest right wing bureaucrat, he would be wrong, but then at least you could have some respect for him for putting things clearly. But to dress up in militant phraseology a gambit crafted in the corridors of westminster is to insult the intelligence of the union’s members.
Nevertheless, Billy won the vote even though his argument was laughable. He did so by relying on support at the executive from the union right wing and from the SWP.
Executive member Jane Loftus, a prominent SWP trade union activist, fell for Billy’s argument hook line and sinker and voted with the union establishment. And so Billy can look forward to enjoying some left cover during the conference debate. Most worrying of all is that the SWP have some influence in the branch that submitted the motion and may be trying to prevail on the delegation to go along with the leadership’s demand that it not be put to a vote.
Whether or not the actions of Loftus amount to the considered position of the SWP, or just reveal a lack of common sense, dim-wittedness and/or blissful ignorance of the methods of trade union officers is a moot point .
In a previous case, when the SWP supported Billy over not withdrawing support for Labour MP’s who backed the Iraq war, the action of Loftus did then have official backing. But that was back in the bad old days of the Rees/German leadership and concerns to maintain unity with trade union leaders in STWC at any price.
Surely the new SWP leadership can spot a bureaucratic MacGuffin when they see one? Well I certainly hope they can, and that they get their comrades to change tack. If not, they are allowing the organisation’s CWU fraction to function as Mandelson’s poodles.
In one piece entitled walk outs spurred use of foreign workers it is reported that:
‘A rash of 1970s-style unofficial walkouts by British workers over issues such as tea breaks spurred employers to use foreign workers in the sector at the centre of a wave of industrial unrest in recent weeks, industry insiders have told the Financial Times.’
The piece goes on to say that:
‘Political debate over the recent disputes has been dominated by union allegations that non-UK companies are seeking to undercut British workers by paying their foreign employees less.
But companies working in the sector state privately that the attraction of using foreign rather than British workers is that they are much less likely to stage illegal strikes. There is an industry tradition of staging “sympathy stoppages” on the death of a worker’s relative or a retired worker – a site in Southampton suffered a limited walkout for this reason only last month.
British workers are also seen as being prone to walk out over problems with site facilities, such as hot-water boiler breakdowns. Tea breaks – protected in an industry-wide agreement with the unions – are another “huge bone of contention” and had led to walkouts, one insider states.
The engineering construction sector, at the heart of last week’s dispute at the Lindsey oil refinery, lost more than 22,400 days to unofficial action in the year to November. This equates to almost one day for every one of the roughly 25,000 blue-collar workers employed – about 32 times worse than the average for the UK workforce as a whole for the same period.’
the full reports are available at:http://www.ft.com or buy the wekend edition.