Saturday, February 10, 2018

Savaged by a very poorly sheep

The incredibly measured and balanced postings on this blog would, you might think, be unlikely to upset anyone.

You would, I fear be wrong.

Above is a link to some commentary (written perhaps after a good lunch) from a comrade who feels that it is unbecoming in a CLP Chair (let alone an LCF Chair) to express opinions which might imply criticism of decisions previously taken by a Labour Group.

I would have responded sooner but no one drew this to my attention. It is (I am sure) entirely coincidental that a "journalist" from the Murdoch press contacted me just after this blog post was published.

The author is of the view that I should resign for having had the temerity to express socialist opinions. He is quite entitled to his opinion.

I don't think I will resign though.

I think that it is, and remains, the decision of local Labour Party members who holds elected positions (rather than that being the decision of - for example- those with paid jobs in the movement).

If Labour Party members in Brighton and Hove want to be led by those whose response to controversial decisions by the Labour Group will invariably be one of respectful silence then they will have that choice at each AGM.

If anyone supported me to be. Chair of either Brighton Pavilion CLP or the Brighton and Hove LCF in the expectation that I would be quietly supportive of whatever Labour Councillors did, regardless of Party policy, then I can only apologise (though if that was anyone's expectation then I doubt they were paying attention).

What we need is not silly sniping from the sidelines from those who absent themselves from decision making in the Party but a considered debate about how Party members can assert our appropriate authority in relation to decision making (currently) by the Labour Group.

Today I was happy to Chair a discussion about the Democracy Review organised by the Regional Office at which Party members had a constructive discussion about how we improve our decision making. I was sorry not to see my blogging critic there.

I welcome criticism but would welcome even more criticism which was meaningful and constructive. Until then I invite my critic to stand for election.

The Labour Party is changing and all who want to see socialism are welcome to be part of that change.

Sent from my iPhone

No longer sub judice - UNISON can act. Will it?

This Thursday the appeal against last year's decision by the Assistant Certification Officer was finally heard by the Employment Appeal Tribunal and reached its predictable conclusion.

No one can now claim that the matter is sub judice and that UNISON cannot therefore consider the decision through its lay structures.

Although the passage of time since the decision was published has seen the retirement of the Regional Secretary of whom the Assistant Certification Officer was so critical (and the departure from UNISON of other participants in this saga) it is not too late for the Union to learn from the decision and to respond to the recommendations which its representatives requested.

The Union has made some changes to its election procedures - but not with a view to increasing democracy or to guarding against the sort of misconduct which marred the last General Secretary election.

I hope that NEC members (whatever view they took in that election) will now insist upon a thorough review informed by the very clear and straightforward decision of the Assistant Certification Officer.

As a rank and file member I shall watch with interest.

Sent from my iPhone

Saturday, February 03, 2018

Policies not personalities

As flattering as it is to have extracts from this blog quoted elsewhere, it is a shame when people treat debate about policies as if it were about personalities.

What matters about politics is how it impacts upon peoples’ lives, not who holds which political office.

What a local authority does is important. Who leads a local authority is much less important.

I wrote the last post on this blog in order to express my opinions (my personal opinions) about some policy issues in Brighton and Hove.

The separate question of who leads the Labour Group is a matter for members of the Labour Group.

More important than my opinions (or those of any individual, Councillor or otherwise) on substantive policy questions is the procedural question of how the Labour Group relates to the Labour Party. We have yet to get this right and we need to change.

Just as we need to work together in the local Party to develop a manifesto for the 2019 Council elections, so we need to find ways to work together to ensure that the policies agreed by our Labour Group reflect the views of Labour Party members.

We cannot undo things that have already been done, but from now onwards we need to ensure that – particularly where policies may be controversial within the Party – decisions are not made by the Group in isolation from the wider Party.

These detailed issues about how policy is made are much less likely to attract headlines, or interest, than a misrepresentation of policy debate as being about personalities, but these are the issues which should concern Labour Party members. 

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Labour in local government is changing. Now is a good time to catch up.

I haven’t been blogging so much recently since there is less to say (in public) about leading the local Labour Party than there used to be about criticising the leadership of a trade union (although I wouldn’t want anyone to think those criticisms are not still valid – I wish well to all those candidates in the forthcoming elections for UNISON Service Group Executives who are supported by UNISON Action Broad Left. Union members need and deserve better).

However, on a day when it is clear just how uncomfortable it is for some of Labour’s elected representatives to come to terms with the leftward shift in our (mass) membership and – consequently – our policies it is necessary to say something. The rightly criticised Haringey Development Vehicle was simply a particularly extreme version of the “innovative” approach to swerving austerity by engaging with private sector or third sector providers which has been the hallmark of “New” Labour in its dotage.

I have witnessed the perennial failure of such “innovation” too many times. (It is not, of course, innovative to take services out of direct public sector provision. The very reason that the London County Council was established was because the former Metropolitan Board of Works, which managed delivery of public services by the private sector, was corrupt and inefficient. Pushing public services into the private (or so-called “third”) sector is just going back to “Victorian values”).

The truth is that you can never get a quart out of a pint pot, whether that pot is labelled “partnership”, “shared services” or even “cooperative” or “mutual”. It isn’t “innovative” to pretend otherwise, it’s just desperate (and wrong).

If you try to transfer public services to a charitable trust in the hope that there are tax advantages (i.e. dodges) to charitable status (or that this will open up income generation possibilities unavailable to a public authority) you won’t just find that the extra costs of keeping staff in the pension scheme will outweigh these benefits, you will also have to excuse taking governance of that service away from genuine accountability to elected Councillors and giving it in perpetuity to the “great and the good” who are trustees.

If you create a joint venture company with the private sector (and don’t kid anyone that isn’t what Housing Associations truly now are) so that the company can build “affordable” homes which are not Council homes then, whilst you avoid placing unrealistic demands on the Housing Revenue Account, you set out on a path which, whatever good it does, does not build (any number of) new Council homes. I was in at the birth of a joint venture company in Lambeth which was (at the time) the largest privatisation in the history of English local government. I also witnessed the slow failure of this ill-considered “innovation”.

Public services matter very much. They underpin civilisation. They are best provided by public servants, employed by the public sector, governed transparently and managed to deliver services rather than deliver “shareholder value” to anyone (or to support “third sector” entities which are never accountable in the way in which local authorities are).

I do understand why social democrat (and even – which is quite different – “New Labour”) Councillors sought out “innovative” ways to avoid the consequences for local government of the austerity policies of successive governments. No one wants to admit that they don’t have the power to do what they want to do.

However, where we are now in this country, with the real prospect of a socialist Labour Government, we don’t need such “innovatory” compromises. We need to develop in detail the policies to implement the improvement of public services for our working class communities to be funded by taxation of the rich and the corporations.

And where we are now in the Labour Party, with a (mass) membership of socialists who demand to be respected and heard, we need Labour Groups who can grow out of the isolation of the past and engage in an inclusive and democratic process of policy development which engages with our Party.

Everyone who can be part of this future must be welcome within it. We socialists must not and will not “purge” opponents as we ourselves have been treated in the past. We will simply encourage democracy and empower ordinary Labour Party members to take decisions for themselves.

Those who do not want to join us in building socialist politics for the twenty first century need not do so, and they will be best to join those who are stepping aside – but that will be their choice. All those who came to the Labour Party to make life better for our people should stay right here and join us in giving effect to our shared beliefs.

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Thinking further about the Labour Party Democracy Review

Having fallen victim to “’flu’-like symptoms” I find myself laid up and that I therefore have time to think further a bit about the first phase of the Labour Party Democracy Review (about which I blogged a few days ago).

Perhaps the most entertaining feature of what could otherwise be quite a dry topic is the plaintive whining of those who used to call the shots in the Labour Party and who, without any hint of irony, complain about factionalism.

Whereas Progress have nothing constructive to say about the review, the faction about which they complain offers detailed suggestions about what to say concerning Young Labour and Women’s Conference.

For those who want to do more than cut and paste Socialist Resistance have published something of a historical perspective on Labour Women’s Conference and New Socialist gave some perspective on Young Labour (about which the NEC appears in any case to have taken some pre-emptive action anyway).

Whilst the BAME Labour site has nothing to say on the topic at present, Jewish Voice for Labour has published an interesting piece – which also highlights existing shortcomings.

Those who have lived their lives in factional struggle within the Labour Party (whether on the left or the right) will see the Democracy Review as being about control of the Party apparatus, as if that were an end in itself (because there are those for whom politics is about position).

However, the question of power within the workers’ movement is not irrelevant – it’s just that the answer to the question is never an end in itself but a means to the end of social transformation.

Therefore the Democracy Review offers those of us trying to build the Labour Party at a local level the opportunity to engage our mass membership in debate both about the nature of the movement we are trying to build and the transformation which we hope to achieve. 

Update on 4 January

I am indebted to a friend and comrade for pointing out to me that the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy have circulated some suggestions to CLP Secretaries to inform debate on the first phase of the Democracy Review.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

The first thing for Labour Party members in the New Year

The first phase of the Labour Party’s Democracy Review is very much upon us. The deadline for submissions on the organisational aspects of Young Labour, BAME Labour and Women’s Conference is 12 January 2018. The questions which are specifically asked in the first phase are

How should Young Labour be organised nationally, regionally and locally?

How should Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority members and organisations be represented in the Party?

What role should Women's Conference have?

Ann Black’s report from the NEC Committee meetings of 31 October assured us that “there is no pre-set agenda and no documents which pre-empt the conclusions, and deadlines are fluid, with further thoughts accepted after the stated dates.” That’s just as well, as Labour Party bodies have had precious little time to consider these questions.

It may well be that it will take more than the length of time from Conference 2017 to Conference 2018 to formulate and implement proposals to democratise our Party. Indeed there is no compelling reason why Party democracy ought not to be under continual review and reconsideration.

That said, we need to do our best to engage with the timetable which has been set for this review if we are to maximise the democratic influence of ordinary Party members. Clearly these first questions are of particular interest to young members, Black, Asian and ethnic minority members and women members.

However, all members should be engaged in the struggles against the oppressions experienced by these groups of members and ought therefore also to be engaged in the discussion which the Party is seeking to have about how these groups of Labour Party members should organise themselves within our Party.

Indeed, since the reason why groups of members experiencing oppression need to organise themselves is because of that oppression and the need to fight it (rather than simply in order to express diverse identities), the question of how to organise is as much about the end of resisting oppression as about the means of (what we in UNISON refer to as) self-organisation.

Since each form of oppression has its particular characteristics, so the answers to the questions which arise from the struggle against each oppression may be as different as may the questions themselves. For example, whereas there are few who deny the legitimacy of a youth organisation, we would be foolish to believe that everyone (even every Labour Party member) understands the daily reality of racism in today’s Britain, and hence the need for self-organisation of the members who are on the receiving end of that racism.

Our fight for democracy within the Labour Party is not separate from our struggle to transform society. 

Monday, December 25, 2017

A message for UNISON members at Christmas

Although I have stood down in the past year from all my elected positions within my trade union, UNISON, of which I am now simply a member like any other, I have not lost my interest in what UNISON, its activists and officials, are doing. Indeed, at Christmas, I am very keen to know if my income could be increased (!)

As I am no longer a Branch Secretary, and no longer an NEC member, I no longer have to maintain a pretence that UNISON has strength, that it can defend the living standards of its members when it plainly cannot.

(Though looking back at this blog you would have had to be particularly dense to think that I was maintaining such a pretence up to now).

Whilst inflation is at 3% the local government employers (negotiating the pay of the largest group of UNISON members) have offered 2%. One can understand the factors constraining their ability to offer more without thinking it reasonable that we local government workers should face a further reduction in our standard of living.

UNISON must reject this offer – and must organise to resist through strike action. However, the Union is greatly weakened in this vital struggle by the misleadership from which it has suffered in the recent past.

Six years ago, the leadership of UNISON played a key role in the capitulation by the public service trade unions to the pension reform plans of the Coalition Government. These plans could have been defeated, even by the weakened trade union movement of 2011/12 – they were not because our leaders chose not to take that path. (UNISON’s leadership played a central role but the leadership of the GMB and UNITE were equally implicated). The union leaderships led our members into the biggest strike since 1926 and then marched back down the hill with nothing to show for the action that hadn’t been offered earlier – this capitulation was central to the survival of the Coalition Government.

Two years ago, that same leadership circled their moth-eaten wagons to defend the misbehaviour which was proven to have happened in the ramshackle campaign to secure the precarious re-election of the lame-duck General Secretary. The Assistant Certification Officer has put in the public domain the fact that your blogger was threatened with legal action as part of that sorry episode (and I repeat and reiterate my apology to Dave Prentis and that he was not personally culpable for misconduct in the election) – the only reason there has not been a more serious reckoning within the Union is because of an ill-advised appeal. (Not of course the only such ill-judged appeal). This is the last term of office of UNISON’s current General Secretary and the machine that secured his election previously is now leaderless and broken.

The worst enemies of our trade union movement would not describe us as a meritocracy – and they would not be wrong in that. Our trade unions desperately need better leadership, because the quality of our leadership is generally (in the largest trade unions) very poor.

The democracy of our movement offers us the opportunity to improve the quality of that leadership by replacing it. UNISON’s rank and file activists need finally to unite behind a single challenger if our members are ever to get the leadership they deserve.

I am part of a generation of activists who failed to achieve that unity and our only contribution to the future can be to acknowledge that we were all wrong in failing to achieve that unity – and that someone else could now be right. The only people who are more wrong are those who have continued to support the failing leadership in spite of their inability to defend our members’ interests. 

This Christmas is a good time to fight racism

As regular readers of this blog might expect, I got into something of a row in a pub in the run up to Christmas about whether or not black workers experience systematic racial disadvantage in the workplace. I know what I know from the evidence of my own eyes and my own intelligence over the past thirty years of working life, but I thought it worth setting out the evidence here.

in the last 3 months of 2016, the average hourly pay for White employees was £13.75, while the average hourly pay for employees from other ethnic groups was £13.18 (so on average white employees are earning 4.3% more than non-white employees). This single figure doesn’t quite capture the stark inequality in workplaces with significant black workforces where the senior management are overwhelmingly white, but it speaks to racial inequality in the world of work. 11% of white employees are in managerial positions (of any seniority) compared to 5% of black employees.

Access to the world of work itself is also subject to racial inequality however. White people are considerably more likely to be in paid employment since in 2016, the economic inactivity rate – the number of people who are economically inactive as a percentage of the total working age population – was 21% for White British people and 30% for people from all Other ethnic groups, a difference of nine percentage points.

Racial inequality in employment is a manifestation of the racism embedded structurally and institutionally within British (and Western) capitalism, and is therefore reflected also in the world outside work – for example in the criminal justice system.

Although in 2015/16, a higher proportion of the Mixed, Asian and Black adult populations were victims of crime than the White adult population, it was Black people who were over 3 times more likely to be arrested than White people  and ethnic minority groups in general who were over one and a half times more likely to be arrested than White people. (Perhaps because people from an ethnic minority background are 3 times more likely to be stopped and searched by the Police than White people and Black people are over 6 times more likely to be stopped and searched than White people).

The state disproportionately polices the Black population, even though that population is disproportionately in need of protection.

All these statistics are drawn from official sources and published by the Government. They are hardly likely to exaggerate this stain upon our society – and yet many people (including workers who work in organisations where this evidence is manifest around them) are capable of denying them.

Racism is resurgent. The Presidency of the United States is in the hands of reaction, a far-right Party is in Government in Austria and this country is careering wildly on a path set by a referendum result dictated by anti-immigrant prejudice (never forget that a Labour MP was murdered by a racist during the referendum campaign and that the result was that sought by the assailant and not the victim).

The obvious failure of the contemporary capitalist system to offer decent lives to the majority of the population does offer hope that a socialist leadership of the Labour Party could give us a socialist Government – but the lessons of the 1930s surely teach us that times such as these also offer the possibility of far worse outcomes.

Socialists here and now need to be the most determined anti-racists – and we need to assert the truth of the fact of institutional racism in the face of the denial of our fellow citizens and fellow workers.

For long years I fought this fight as a union activist  - now, as a Labour Party representative I know how important it is that we ensure that we select black and ethnic minority candidates for public office – and that every candidate we select is committed to the fight against racism. 

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Farewell John and Carl

As the year in which I ceased to be a full-time local trade union representative after quarter of a century draws to a close, I am sorry to hear of the passing of two other former UNISON Branch Secretaries in London local government.

John Mulrenan, from the neighbouring borough of Southwark, served our movement not only as a Branch Secretary (more than once), but subsequently as a union trainer (in which capacity he was greatly appreciated in Lambeth).

John was a diamond, a socialist rank and file activist who neither gave up nor fell victim to either sectarianism or careerism. He was generous with his experience and therefore leaves a legacy in the activism of many people whose lives he touched.

Carl Millin, retired Branch Secretary from Bexley, was not perhaps in the same political space as John (or your blogger). He was though a long serving trade unionist committed to a union run by elected, rather than paid, officials. His wry comments as an observer of our Conferences were welcome and appreciated.

In John and Carl our movement has lost two stalwarts from among the ranks of those who are the lifeblood of trade unionism.

A life of service to the movement which can liberate humanity is a life well lived.