Sunday, 27 September 2015

John Gray's Thoughts on Conference

I've just finished packing for Conference and will soon be on my way to catch the train for Brighton.  For the Party this should prove to be a pivotal Conference.

After the shock and devastation that we all felt following the Conservative victory in May, we now unexpectedly have a Labour Party Leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who is firmly of "the left".

He is also supportive of trade unions and many of our policies and who actually defines himself politically as a trade unionist.  I don't think this has fully sunk in yet.

I also think that many people do not fully understand the reasons for his massive victory nor the political mood change that brought it about.

Its not just those on the right who just don't get it. On the left there are those who don't understand how you can be a radical and softly spoken. How you can respect those who you don't agree, without the need to attack them personally. 

Jeremy of course, has to deliver. To do this he has to win the next General Election. It is pointless to have a leader who supports you if he or she is not in a position to actually legislate. This is especially important to trade unions, when we are currently facing a huge threat to our long term existence from the Tory (anti) trade union bill currently going through the House of Commons.  The Unions foundered the Labour Party in the first place to rebalance power in the workplace in favour of workers.

It was always going to be tough to win the next election regardless of who is leader. The economy is likely to slowly recover (in spite of Tory policies), unfavourable boundary changes are very probable and if the UK votes to stay in the EU then UKIP is likely to collapse. So difficult but a Labour leader who can inspire and enthuse could do it.

The first big test will be the London Mayoral, Scottish Parliament and local councils elections in May next year.

Expect further abuse and monstering of Jeremy (and his family) before then. He therefore needs all our support. The new members and supporters who have flocked to the Party must take the next step and become activists and be prepared to organise and go out on the doorstep.

Existing Party activists who didn't choose Jeremy as leader must now accept that he is and he has a mandate for change. It doesn't mean you will agree with everything (who does in life?) but all those who consider themselves democrats must accept this and give him his chance. There is no alternative to this and those who don't like this will simply have to lump it.
By John Gray- Political Blogger, Newham Councillor and Unison NEC member- in a personal capacity.

Monday, 14 September 2015

What exactly is the Trade Union Bill?

Today is the second day of the 147th Trade Union Congress, a historic part of British democracy, where elected delegates representing 6.2 million working people will gather, discuss and debate abroad range of issues effecting the Labour movement and working lives. It is also the Second reading of the Trade Union Bill in the House of Commons, a much anticipated piece of legislation designed to deliver a mortal blow to the Labour Movement.

The bill was accompanied by three short consultations which will ran over the summer and concluded on the 9th September, with the intention that the responses could be reported as part of the second reading.

Whilst the headline announcement of introducing thresholds for ballots, is widely known much of the details of the bill seems to have slipped the level of media attention it warrants. For should this bill become legislation it would inflict wide ranging restrictions, on the ability of working people in this country to collectively organise. It shifts the already uneven balance of power in the workplace, further away from workers to the advantage of employers.

The Bill should be seen in the context of a neo-liberal attempt to carry forward Thatcher’s mantle and restrict union activity, to such a degree that the only player in industrial relations would be the will of the free market. However it should be noted that in many ways this isn’t the legislation of small state politics, but is actually rather authoritarian.

The bill greatly increases the role of the certification officer (a sort of regulator for trade unions). The CO would be empowered to start investigations into trade union on its own volition, rather than waiting for a complaint. The CO will now also be able to act on intelligence from employers hostile to trade union organisation, and will be given powers to appoint inspectors, to carry out investigations into union activity. If there is a suspicion a union or union activists have breached their statutory duties, the CO now has the power to seize documents and evidence. Should unions be acting inappropriately financial penalties will be imposed.

Compare this with employers, where there is no equivalent regulator employing inspectors able to seize evidence to check whether employers are fulfilling their obligations, under the working time directive or whether workers are being unfairly dismissed. Often the only recourse a worker has is to take a case to an employment tribunal (paying a fee for this privilege). This would normally have to be retrospectively after the worker has suffered a detriment. The onus lies on the worker to seek justice.

Of course the new CO powers will cost money, but the government has a solution to this- they will levy charges on the unions to fund it! Unions will also now be required to report all industrial action that has taken place in the last 12 months, the nature of the disputes, what action was taken, and the turnout and ballot results, with a fine imposed if this is not provided.
This big state legislation goes further, even proscribing extra wording that should be contained on official ballot papers. Ballot paper will now have to include a statement alerting members that if they take industrial action this may breach their contract of employment, and reminding them they have no protection from dismissal if action is unofficial, and only limited unfair dismissal rights (for 12 weeks).

The Bill will compel unions to provide 'detailed indication’ of the dispute with the employer on the ballot paper, and where the voting paper asks whether members would support action short of a strike, the ballot paper must describe what form this might take. Also the expected timetable for the dispute must be set out on the ballot.

One can’t help wondering whether there will be any room left for members to vote? On serious note these extra layers of bureaucracy aim to provide many avenues in which employers can take out an injunction to prevent action, should the union “stuff up” on any particular requirement.

Where any industrial action – lasts for more than four months the union will be required to re-ballot. Unions have historically relied on one ballot mandate to organise a succession of strike days over a period of 12 months or so.

As reasonably well reported the bill would introduce the only form of turnout fresh holds in British democracy.   Industrial action only being lawful if: there is a minimum 50% turnout amongst members who are entitled to vote. And further in certain ‘important public services’, there would also need to be 40% support for action amongst those balloted. In other words you would need a 50% turn out with a 80% yes vote.

Should a union successfully navigate all the hoops in place, and manage to take industrial action the bill then takes a frankly bizarre turn. It’s worth noting that at present there is a statutory Code of Practice that governs conduct during strikes, which amongst other things limits picket numbers to six people. The new bill takes things to a whole new level. Each union must appoint a picket supervisor to oversee the picket line. In something reminiscent of a fascist regime the supervisor must wear an identifying armband or badge, and carry with them at all times a letter of authorisation from the union. This should be presented if requested by the police or any nosey member of the public.

As if this sort of “Union snoop charter” doesn’t go far enough there are even plans to include requiring unions to report on plans to run social media accounts for campaigning around disputes.

As well as the bits contained within the Bill on the 6th August (the day there was severe disruption in London due to a tube strike) The government announced their intention to end “Check-off” a mutually beneficial arrangement where employees agree to deduct union subs at source from staff members who request so. This allows the employer to keep an eye on union density, and is simple and easy for union members. It is often the case that trade Unions pay the (minimal) costs associated with payrolls operating this system. The only real reason for the proposal is to get rid of large numbers of trade union members in one clean sweep. It could well mean members just drop of,  unions faced with a battle to go round completing direct debit mandates for millions of members who have always paid at source.

I have only briefly attempted to highlight some of the nasties contained in this vindictive piece of legislation. However I recommend that anyone interested should visit the TUC website at which has a wealth of resources.  

Although this bill way well be enacted, given its draconian, authoritarian and impractical nature there is certainly potential to achieve helpful amendments.     

By Frank Jackson


Monday, 10 August 2015

Battle for the heart and soul of the party


After the first outright election defeat in 23 years, it is no wonder the Labour party family appears a little bewildered and confused.

Of course losing power in 2010, was the crucial turning point for the party machine, the point at which we ceased to govern, and were thrown into opposition. However for a great many, we kidded ourselves that we would be back in power within five years. Seeking consolation in the fact that the tories had failed to gain an outright majority, this on the back of 13 years of Labour rule, a hugely unpopular war and an international financial crisis! We naively felt that after experiencing a short sharp spell of coalition rule, the electorate would come running back.- They didn’t!

On the night of the 7th May the worst case scenario had been realised- We not only had fallen short of forming a majority, -the tories for the first time in 18 years had a majority government (all be it assisted along the way by SNP and UKIP votes). With the benefit of hindsight we were never going to win 2015, we didn’t speak to where the electorate was, and seemed to only appeal to a core vote- of which the SNP and UKIP ate handsomely into.

After all election defeats even before activists can recover from lost sleep, hangovers and the inevitable feeling of despair- the row begins over why they lost. There are of course as many different diagnoses as activists. Over the next few months the row continues over the same lines, but becomes not about why they lost but how to win.

However what seems particularly acute for the Labour party now, is the sense of confusion. This is most obviously manifest in the leadership debate.

It is not really just a leadership election, but rather a debate about what our party is and where it goes now! It is a real battle for the very heart and soul of the Labour party. Of course the central players in the debate are the leadership candidates, but the election is just the theatre for a clash of ideas and ideals.

The debate focuses on the case made by those with the loudest voices, inevitably coming from either end of the party, where almost all the real political “organising” in our party seems to happen.

There are those on the left (gathering around Corbyn) who argue that the solution to our election defeat is simple- move further to the left. We simply weren’t making the case loud enough, we just needed to be bolder, stronger and middle England would surely flock behind the socialist utopia they were being offered. I once thought that this view was just a product of naivety, and romantic idealism. However over the last month or so it so often seems to have been said by the hard left- “that it isn’t about winning elections, but about principle”. If the Labour party isn’t about winning elections, then I am at a loss to understand what it is about? Sadly those who make this argument seem only to care about the self gratification of believing they belong to a really “radical” party. The truth is there is nothing radical or left wing about languishing in opposition whilst the tories screw over working people, and dismantle the welfare state.

On the right (gathering around Kendal) it is argued the solution is simple, we simply re-run the 1997 election campaign, rummage through the Tories manifesto nick anything we can, win back the centre ground and march to power. Of course this is naïve too, It is not 1997, and the world has somewhat moved on. We are not now simply trying to win votes from the Tories, we also need to win back huge swathes of people who voted UKIP and also claw as much back from the SNP as we can. We also need to accept voting behaviour has changed and is changing for example larger numbers of ethnic minority voters appear to have left the party than ever before. The strategy now has to be somewhat different.

Of course there are really two debates simultaneously going on, overlapping and confused, but not always producing the same answers. The first is about the route back to power, and the second is about what we believe in and stand for, for the fundamentalist’s its easy to convince themselves that the route to power must exactly correspond with us being the party they wish us to be. However I suspect most of our membership is far more pragmatic, expecting to make compromises in order to gain power and actually start rebuilding the country.

The truth is we as a party to significantly broaden our appeal, rather than re-trenching to a narrow base. We have always been a broad church party, but now more than ever we need to think big tent.

Whether we like it or not we need to be in a place where we can win back large numbers of Tories votes, and the solution this time cannot just simply be to move to the right. We need the self employed, small business to think we are on their side; we need to be passionately pro growth, with cleaver policies to develop new industries and create a more diverse economy.

We need to win back UKIP voters, much of this should be natural Labour territory. The solution for our party should never be to swallow the racist tabloid rhetoric. Indeed even if we were inclined this strategy will never work as we can’t out UKIP -UKIP. What we can do is address the very real fears people have about immigration, mostly these seem to focus on Housing and Jobs, and competition for resources. We are the only party that can speak to these fears, and we need bold easily conveyed policies. Addressing the housing crisis, and cracking down on exploitative Labour practices, and creating jobs.  

We have to eat right into the heart of the SNP vote, we need serious gains in Scotland. Continually people in our party seem to dismiss this by saying, “when we have a winning candidate as Labour Leader and the party has a credible programme- the Scottish vote will follow”. This stinks of the same kind of idea’s about the Scottish vote, that allowed the SNP to crush us in the first place! We need to offer a strong bold centre left vision that Scotland can really buy into. We need to speak seriously about building a UK economy that isn’t too London centric.  

We need to think seriously about the huge numbers of the electorate who fail to vote, we need a message for them. We need people to believe not all the political parties are the same, that their vote can make a difference. We need to present a clear distinction between what we and the Tories are offering.

As if the tasks above weren’t daunting enough, We need to be economically credible enough to convince middle England, the Tory tabloid press and big business that a Labour government was not such a huge risk after all.  

The answers lie not at our party’s polarised extremes but, rather in her sensible, socially conscious “centre left” heart. We just need the bravery to discover them.

By Frank Jackson

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Future of Public Sector Pay

A great deal has been written and said about the first budget of a conservative majority government in 17 years. Much focus has rightly been placed on the “enhanced” minimum wage, spun as a national “living wage”, bought in whilst simultaneously abolishing the tax credits that make work pay for low earners. Whilst this is indeed a genius piece of political manoeuvring, designed to outflank the Labour party on her minimum wage manifesto pledge, at the same time as distracting from a welfare cut that makes 13 million working families worse off.

 It has however also distracted much discussion and analysis of another grim detail contained within the budget.- The announcement that there will be four more years of no more than 1% pay awards in the public sector. This will most likely mean four more years of real term pay cuts, at a time the economy is supposedly recovering.  On average most public sector workers have now already seen the value of their pay packet fall by 16% in real terms, since 2010.

The arguments made by the government over the course of the last parliament were about a need for public sector pay restraint, in a time of “austerity”, a necessary evil the Tories argued “to balance the books”. A period of pain to be suffered to get the economy kick started. During these years the argument was about economics, the pace of cuts, the degree with which Keynesian versus free market arguments were subscribed to.

Any illusion that the government were just acting with financial prudence, has now well and truly been exposed as pure spin. Why would a government who fundamentally believes in the free market, want to continue to artificially push down wages, (in one area of the economy) below the level to which the market dictates.

The answer I suspect is somewhat Machiavellian, a long game by a chancellor, who now thinks he has a shot as PM in 2020, and just needs the opportunity, the excuse to reshape the country forever, to push back the size of the state to before the post war consensus years.

It goes like this- the Tories true aspersions for finishing the project Thatcher started, can never be realised as public opinion currently stands, it is just too unpalatable for Britain’s electorate. If only public opinion could somehow be softened? Well perhaps the Government thinks it can, not overnight but over the course of this parliament, and perhaps the start of the next. The plan is this, a war of attrition. As wages plummet, recruitment and retention becomes even worse, Nurses choosing to work in private heathcare, social workers re-training, teachers going to work abroad etc. Already strained vital public services will begin to become unviable, “large, failing and inefficient”- the press will launch scathing attacks- ambulance waiting times, growing class sizes, social services failures. The public will grow tired of defending services they view as cumbersome and poor.

 Now In will ride the government “a knight in shining armour” – the solution, they will say -hand more and more over to the “efficient” private sector. They will claim their hand is forced, they have had to intervene, public money is being squandered on desperately inadequate services.

Of course much of the apparatus is already there,- the Health and Social Care Act, the Academies Act, what is not yet however, is the public will to allow the pace or degree of change this Government wants. Should they succeed, and Labour fail to gain power in 2020 and full plan comes to fruition, one can only speculate on the nature (and size) of the future state. Much of course depends on how much the Tories are able to get away with, and it is a risky strategy, which depends on if Labour is able, and the press willing to park public sector failures firmly on the door of the government.
by Frank Jackson