Thursday, September 29, 2011

UNISON defending public services (in-house!)

Having just corrected the post below to clarify that the UNISON speaker at a Labour Party Conference fringe on "mutuals" made it very clear that the only circumstances in which UNISON might support co-ops would be to 'mutualise' personal assistants or privatised workers unlikely to be brought back in house eg home carers, I thought I would repeat the correction in a new post as the wording of the previous post could be misleading.

Mutuals may be better than outright privatisation - but are no substitute for proper in-house provision of public services.

This is of course consistent with UNISON’s policy of support for in-house service provision in the public sector, as expressed in our guide to procurement, as well as the justifiable caution about public service mutuals expressed by our Conference and reflected in our guidance on mutuals.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Mutual benefit?

I understand that the current Leader of the local authority for which I have worked for almost 25 years has been promoting the wonders of public service mutuals as a model for the delivery of services whilst at Party Conference, assisted in part by our own trade union.

Before we go much further down this road we need to heed the wise words of Paul O'Brien, Chief Executive of the Association for Public Service Excellence (http://opinion.publicfinance.co.uk/2011/08/mutuals-wheres-the-proof/) when he says;

"We need a proper evidence-based debate on the role that co-operatives and mutuals can play in public service delivery."

As the most enthusiastic advocates of "mutualisation" themselves acknowledge that the UK lacks the legislative and institutional support framework to enable the development of public service mutuals (http://www.uk.coop/press-release/uk-not-equipped-public-services-mutuals-says-new-review) any "evidence-based debate" must lead to the conclusion that hasty, top-down, attempts to drive transfer to "public service mutuals" would be a foolish abrogation of responsibility by elected local Councillors.

The funny thing is, as a local authority employee, I already work for the best sort of mutual - it serves, and is accountable to, all who live in its geographical area of responsibility, all residents - not just those who "join" something - get a say in who runs the organisation at regular intervals (which we call elections) and all its assets are the property of the community as a whole.

The task of Labour politicians is to defend public services - not to pretend that there is an alternative to this hard task.

Update on Thursday morning

I understand that the UNISON speaker who spoke alongside Lambeth's Leader (our national head of local government, Heather Wakefield) made it very clear that the only circumstances in which she/we might support co-ops wouldbe to 'mutualise' personal assistants or privatised workers unlikely to be brought back in house eg home carers.

Since I realise some could read the post above as suggesting some support from UNISON for Lambeth's "Co-operative Council" (which isn't the position) I thought I should correct that impression.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Labour must back the unions

Our General Secretary, Dave Prentis was clear and to the point in Liverpool today as he got a standing ovation at Labour Party Conference (http://www.unison.org.uk/asppresspack/pressrelease_view.asp?id=2454).

The Labour Party leadership need to show their support for the coming pensions action on 30 November. They need, as the Labour Representation Committee has argued (http://l-r-c.org.uk/news/story/towards-30-november-build-the-resistance/), to demonstrate to our members (whether part of the "squeezed middle" or, for that matter the "squashed bottom") that they stand on our side.

This is the decisive moment at which the Leader of the Opposition has to decide whether to lead opposition and - as I was saying the other day (http://jonrogers1963.blogspot.com/2011/09/wanted-alternative.html) the answer to this question goes beyond the single issue of pensions.

The Coalition Government have taken sides - the Labour Opposition also has to take sides. For or against the welfare state? For or against dignity in old age for retired public servants? For or against workers prepared to make sacrifices to defend our interests?

The pensions struggle is shaping up to be the decisive battle of this Parliament. One lesson of the 80s is that the support of the Labour leadership (even in opposition) can still be significant and helpful (or perhaps the lesson, learned by the NUM, is that the absence of clear and unequivocal support from the Labour leadership can be very damaging).

Dave Prentis is therefore right to demand this support (we are, after all, having a "national ballot"!)

An important difference between now and the 80s is that we now have the leadership of the big unions united in support of action, to be taken across unions and sectors, with the support of the TUC.

We now have to deliver similar unity from the membership of the various unions - having been offered leadership we may have to show some "followership".

The most important single thing any UNISON activist can do just now is work to maximise turnout in the coming strike ballot.

For those involved in the Labour Party (whether as delegates or individual members) we also need to keep pressure on Labour politicians to back us, as early and with as much publicity as we can get!

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Balls

The Shadow Chancellor might have got my second preference vote in last year's leadership election had my children not pointed out that, unless he changed his surname he would never be taken seriously.



I don't expect any pangs of regret if, as reported today he tells Party Conference that "we will never have credibility unless we have the discipline and the strength to take tough decisions." (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-15054705).



You don't need a code book to understand what it means when leaders of an ostensibly Centre-Left party speak like that. The "tough decisions" he's talking about aren't the ones which would require "the discipline and the strength" to confront the wealthy and powerful.



The decisions are those which will be "tough" for the people for whom the Labour Party was created and upon whose votes it depends. Labour leaders invariably resolve the contradiction between representing the interests of working people and aspiring to manage an economy founded on principles inimical to those interests in favour of the system rather than the people - because they can't see the possibility of real change.



Trade unionists need to shed the social democratic blinkers worn by the Party leadership if we are to do our best in the coming confrontation with the Coalition.



UNISON's motion to Labour Party Conference - calling for support for our action on pensions - is far more important than whether the Shadow Chancellor is seen to have "credibility."



The job of an opposition is to oppose - and right now it's the trade unions, not the Party, who are doing that job.



If our economic system, with it's inbuilt tendency towards periodic economic crises, cannot deliver decent living standards, pensions and public services, maybe it is the system which should give way, rather than - as at present - our pay, pensions and services?



And if trade unionists arrive at that conclusion we need stronger links with those in the Party who think likewise (http://www.l-r-c.org.uk/).

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Sunday, September 25, 2011

Employers' responses to the coming pensions strike

As union activists are gearing up to persuade our members to vote for and take strike action on November 30, our employers are responding also.

In local government this has taken the form of unilateral proposals from the employers to implement the Government's proposed £900 Million "pensions tax" on the Local Government Pension Scheme (LGPS) (http://www.local.gov.uk/web/10161/media-releases/-/journal_content/56/10161/2875454/NEWS-TEMPLATE).

The local government employers, as custodians of a funded scheme which invests billions of pounds on behalf of 4.33 Million active, retired and deferred members, have tried to mitigate the worst excesses of the Government's proposals with a plan to increase our retirement age to 66 in 2014 to save money and to offer members a choice between contribution increases of up to 2.5% (from which only the lowest paid would be exempt) or a commensurate reduction in pension benefits (through a reduced "accrual rate") for those who cannot afford this significant drop in take home pay.

UNISON has been absolutely right - as have other unions - in refusing to endorse this attack upon the living standards of our members (now and in retirement) as it is only marginally less awful than that proposed by the Government.

At least the local government employers, having a visible stake in the management of a funded pension scheme, have sought to make their own proposals (however awful). The focus of the NHS employers has been on offering advice to employers on how to cope with industrial action (http://www.nhsemployers.org/Aboutus/Publications/Documents/Industrial_relations_guidance_080911.pdf).

This advice counsels employers to consider "if the unions may be acting unlawfully, whether the employer should take legal action to restrain the action" and although it goes on to hedge this advice about with qualifications which make clear that the authors do not advocate swift recourse to such provocative action anyone who has read (for example) the tribunal decision in the case of Yunus Bakhsh will know that there are NHS employers who might respond enthusiastically to any perceived encouragement to attack trade union activism.

The advice goes on to suggest that "employers will usually start from the position that partial performance of contracts of employment will not be accepted or paid." This position on the part of employers has - regrettably - support from the case of Wiluszynski v Tower Hamlets (which clarified employers' rights to refuse to pay staff carrying out only a proportion of their duties) - though whether health employers would send staff home without pay for refusing to carry out all their contractual duties is a practical rather than a legalistic question. SMART action may still - sometimes - be smart.

Nevertheless, the recent experience of our Barnet local government branch certainly indicates that we need to be prepared to escalate to strike action if the employer frustrates attempts at more limited action by relying on Wiluszynski.

As much as we see different responses, from our employers, to our threat of action, we need both unity and determination - and a preparedness to take the action which will have an impact - if we are to defend the pensions which were won for us by the struggles of former generations of trade unionists.

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Saturday, September 24, 2011

Vote "YES" - it's official

Official "vote YES" materials for the pensions dispute are now on the UNISON website - a leaflet (http://www.unison.org.uk/acrobat/20352.pdf) and a poster (http://www.unison.org.uk/acrobat/20354.pdf).



Branches will get bulk deliveries next week but every activist can start circulating these electronically now.

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NHS Pension - what you stand to lose

Members of the NHS Pension Scheme can now find out how much the Government's plans will cost you with UNISON's online calculator (http://www.unison.org.uk/pensions/reckoner.asp).



This is a powerful tool to persuade members to be prepared to take action on 30 November - and beyond.

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Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Not in front of the members?

I recently read a report concerning a local authority, facing appalling reductions in funding, which was contemplating attacks on the conditions of service of its staff.

The Council made clear to it's trade unions that it was willing to negotiate, but only if they pledged to respect the confidentiality of those negotiations (by not reporting back to their members during the course of the negotiations and consulting them only when talks had reached a conclusion).

The union in this case, under the supervision of Regional officials, agreed to these terms. I think this was a foolish error, not so much because it was wrong in principle (though it was) but because it will weaken the union for no possible benefit.

In principle, those of us asked to negotiate (or more often these days, to participate in consultation "with a view to reaching agreement") owe a duty of transparency and accountability to the members on behalf of whom we negotiate. We need to consult and engage with members in order to set our bargaining agenda, which should be subject to scrutiny and democratic decision through our union structures. We need to continue that engagement throughout negotiations/consultation so that the priorities which we express are those of our members. We need to be honest and transparent with our members so that we, in turn, have a sense of our collective combativity to inform our stance in discussions with the employer. It may not be possible in every case to live by all of these ideals, but we should certainly try.

For those who prefer pragmatism to principle as a guide to action (and I see no reason not to like both) it must be clear that "secret talks" with the employer fly in the face of an organising approach to building the strength of a union to defend its members. The best point at which to mobilise and recruit is the point at which the union sets out its demands, whether for a pay claim or for the defence of pension rights, sick pay or any other condition of service. We know from historical experience that we recruit most strongly at those points when we are campaigning hard around demands which resonate with our members and potential members.

In the case of an attack on conditions of service at the level of an individual authority, this point of maximum advantage comes at the very beginning - and experience dictates that the more that we can do from that point to build union density and organisation, as well as the combativity of the workforce, the better (or less worse) the eventual outcome for conditions of service.

If, however, we were to respond to such an attack by trooping silently into secret talks, we could not give members the honest and accurate updates from discussions with the employer which would be a prerequisite for an organising campaign to defend conditions of service. This would in turn weaken our position as negotiators in our splendid isolation.

The end result of such secret talks would be a "final offer" which would leave the union in a double bind. Either the employers' final position could not be recommended, in which case we would have to mobilise members we had demobilised behind leaders who had just proven themselves failures in negotiations, or we would go out to our members recommending concessions as "the best that could have been achieved by negotiation" without having taken our members honestly and transparently through the process leading up to that conclusion. Neither case is a recipe for improving recruitment, organisation or member participation.

The real tragedy isn't so much that "secret talks" will invariably lead to less satisfactory outcomes, both for conditions of service and union organisation, than participatory and transparent discussions - it's that they are so easy to avoid.

Any employer contemplating changes which they know may lead to mass terminations to achieve contract change knows that they will have to comply with section 188 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992. Taken together with relevant case law, the employer knows that they will have to consult, in the open "with a view to reaching agreement" with the unions - and that they will also have to consult individuals. A recognised trade union refusing to sign up to "confidential" talks would still have to be consulted with "with a view to reaching agreement" in any case.

None of this means that there is no place for "off the record" talks when the occasion demands, nor for the advance receipt of embargoed information, nor even for occasional formal discussions under "Chatham House Rules" - however these are exceptions to general rules about the democratic conduct of trade union business, requiring robust justification on a case by case basis.

Whoever signs up to "confidential" negotiations over attacks on conditions of service thereby signs away the effectiveness and independence of the union. That this may be the preferred approach for a branch under the direction of Regional officials is disquieting, to put it mildly.

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Monday, September 19, 2011

Unacceptable injustice

For UNISON activists immersed in the daily grind of redundancy consultation and privatisation threats, and now tasked with mobilising for the beginning, on 30 November, of a decisive showdown with a hostile Government, it's hard to find time even to think about much else.

However, what is going on at Dale Farm, where families occupying their own land face forced eviction and homelessness (http://dalefarm.wordpress.com/) cannot be ignored.

Basildon Council claim that they are simply enforcing planning law to protect the green belt - yet it was they who first covered this patch of green with concrete (http://dalefarm.wordpress.com/2011/09/16/dale-farm-concreted-over-by-basildon-council/) and the site was a scrap yard before Travellers made it their home.

This eviction is a discriminatory act borne of prejudice.

I understand that the local authority has prohibited its own staff, including union activists, from speaking out about this matter - but the trade unions must not be silent in the face of such injustice.

It was good to see Rodney Bickerstaffe, our former General Secretary, put his name to a letter to the Guardian last week in opposition to this outrage (http://m.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/sep/14/resume-talks-dale-farm-evictions?cat=uk&type=article) - but the official Labour movement has been all but silent, though the Travellers have the support of many Labour MPs.

UNISON has no specific Conference policy which addresses the plight of Traveller communities, whose members are generally unlikely to be amongst the ranks of the organised working class.

Justice is, however, indivisible. Discrimination and prejudice invariably weakens our class, and at our best the trade union movement recognises both the duty and necessity to oppose injustice and oppression.

We do this though in a way which - because it is intended to be democratic - is sometimes frustratingly slow. A former General Secretary can speak out - and rightly has done - but a current official has to act within the policies agreed by the elected representatives of our members.

Whatever may take place at Dale Farm - and all socialists will wish those resisting the eviction well - we need now to ensure that, through the democratic structures of our movement, we adopt clear policies to defend the right of Travelling communities.

Our sister union, PCS, has stated that "PCS is supporting the campaign to stop the forcible eviction of residents from Dale Farm. We believe the removal would be a violation of human rights and an act of ethnic cleansing." (http://www.pcs.org.uk/en/campaigns/pcs-against-racism-and-fascism/). UNISON needs to adopt a similarly clear position.

There are hundreds at Dale Farm, and there are hundreds of thousands of Travellers. We must find a way to offer the solidarity of millions of trade unionists.    

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Thursday, September 15, 2011

Hang on, don't I recognise you?

Congratulations to UNISON's Plymouth local government branch, and to all the officials nationally and in the South West Region who have secured the (re)recognition of UNISON by Plymouth Council (http://www.unison.org.uk/news/news_view.asp?did=7215).



Trade union recognition is the cornerstone of sensible employee relations - and the basis of a raft of legal rights for workers and their representatives.



With a Government more reactionary than any in the last century intent upon rolling back the social gains of generations we cannot rule out that other employers may follow Plymouth's earlier error in the hope of neutralising organised opposition.



But they need to know that the response they will face from our movement will make the foolish tactic of derecognition more trouble than it's worth.



For our side, we need to seize the opportunity of the coming pensions fight to raise our membership density in every employer so that employers know that derecognition will be a futile fight against the majority of their workers.

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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Rally today against low pay

Today sees another step forward in the fight to secure a London Living Wage (LLW) for workers in the capital, and in particular in higher education institutions in Central London, co-ordinated by the useful and effective Bloomsbury Fightback (http://bloomsburyfightback.wordpress.com/).



To call for a September 2011 date for LLW implementation, there will be a rally at Senate House (Russell Sq carpark) at 11.30 on Wednesday 14 September 2011. 



Labour MPs John McDonnell and Frank Dobson will both be speaking. Organisers are hoping to get a big turnout to convince the University that NOW is the time to end poverty wages.



This is very much the sort of action which deserves full official backing from UNISON as it rightly focuses on the social responsibility of public institutions for ensuring decent living standards.

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Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Back to the future in union-bashing Barnet

My thoughts are with comrades in UNISON's Barnet branch taking action today (http://www.barnetunison.me.uk/).



The branch has stepped up its long running official dispute with the privatisation-mad Tory Council, who have responded with a "lock-out"!



Workers called upon to take a half-day strike from 1pm today are to be confronted by managers and required to sign a document promising not to strike, or face being sent home for the whole day.



Barnet Council have obviously been reaching into the history books in support of their desire to restore nineteenth-century governance arrangements for the provision of public services - the signing of a notorious anti-union "document" was a key tactic employed against the Grand National Consolidated Trade Union (GNCTU) in the 1830s (http://www.historyhome.co.uk/peel/trade-us/document.htm).



Angry UNISON members need to face down the bully boy tactics of Tories intent on ripping up our Welfare state and destroying local government - and I hope many London UNISON branches will join Barnet at the lobby of Hendon Town Hall at 5.30 this afternoon.

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Monday, September 12, 2011

Wanted - an alternative.

Not being amongst the much reduced UNISON delegation to this year's "TUC lite" I won't get to hear "BB" give his keynote address first hand - but I understand he'll echo the General Council's July statement by calling on us to build a "Movement for the Alternative" and asking for a modest levy to help fund this work (http://m.guardian.co.uk/politics/2011/sep/12/brendan-barber-tuc?cat=politics&type=article).

What accounts for the poverty of the aspirations of the top of our movement, as they move backwards rather than forwards from March's brilliant demonstration, and wonder about raising a "fighting fund" one tenth the size of the fund already earmarked for campaigning by UNISON alone?

The unfortunate answer is that our movement has two wings, but only one of them is making any attempt to fly. The unions, the "industrial wing", have been promoting coherent alternative economic policies consistently since 2008 (think of UNISON's alternative budget for example).

However, what passes for the "political wing" of our movement - Her Majesty's Official Opposition - has been keeping its distance both from the policies needed to turn the economy around and - as on 30 June - the action required to protect the interests of millions of working people under attack by the Government of the millionaires.

The baleful influence of the dead weight of the Labour leadership (due to its failure to break from "New Labour") helps explain why the affiliated unions have been slower than some non-affiliated unions to take necessary action.

The Government has declared war on our movement and we need the whole movement to fight back.

That's the real significance of co-ordinating industrial action over pensions as, thankfully, it does now seem we will (http://m.guardian.co.uk/politics/2011/sep/11/unions-strikes-pension-reforms-conference?cat=politics&type=article).

We cannot lawfully co-ordinate national strike action against job cuts (and even if we could, the uneven way in which cuts fall would pose great practical difficulties).

Even for those of in the third year of a pay freeze (and more than ten per cent worse off in real terms as a result) it does not yet seem that we can mobilise members around pay claims (which feel like "asking for more" rather than defending what we have).

The pensions dispute is our chance to inflict a defeat upon the Tory Coalition. If the Labour leadership support this struggle they can position themselves at the head of a movement which will be in a position to articulate, campaign for and win an alternative for our people.

Every Labour MP - every Party member - needs to support our unions when we are forced into battle to defend our pensions, because the outcome of this struggle will shape politics, and our economy, for some time to come.

Saturday's meeting of the National Committee of the Labour Representation Committee was right to give a high priority to lobbying Labour to back the unions on pensions.

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Sunday, September 04, 2011

No one guilty?

No one (at least no police officer) is, apparently, in any way culpable for the death of Smiley Culture.



In other news, a statement from the Vatican, Papal Catholicism has been reaffirmed.



It appears that what bears do in the woods, the police are allowed to visit upon those in their custody.



Tomorrow's Morning Star says what needs to said;



"London's police have long been free to kill with impunity, from Harry Stanley to Roger Sylvester, Jean Charles de Menezes, Azelle Rodney and Mark Duggan. The Met's version of the events surrounding Smiley Culture's death is so bizarre as to be barely credible. We are asked to believe that he stabbed himself in the chest while making a cup of tea in the midst of a police raid on his home. On top of that we're asked to accept an astonishing situation in which the officers involved can choose not to be interviewed by the Independent Police Complaints Commission as they are not suspects."



(http://www.morningstaronline.co.uk/content/view/full/109081?utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=twitter)



As a public service trade unionist I have often represented public servants, accused of making a mistake, who have been held to account. Not every case leads to a just outcome, and sometimes there are outrageous witch hunts.



However, the total absence of any accountability of Metropolitan Police officers for questionable deaths in which the police are involved goes beyond fairness to hard pressed public servants. Indeed it undermines public confidence and therefore the whole basis of policing by consent.



UNISON, as the largest trade union, needs to take a stand for justice for working people. Our defence of the interests of civilian police staff cannot silence us in the face of this grotesque injustice.

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Thursday, September 01, 2011

Name and shame the guilty? Siobhain and Tom, I'm talking about you...

There are looters and then there are looters.

There are those who reach through shattered glass to nick a pair of trainers (can I admit to being so old as not to appreciate the attraction of footwear which aren't even proper shoes?)

Then there are those who profit from the privatisation of public services, extracting a surplus out of taxpayers' money and passing it on to shareholders. And those who help them.

I am not inclined to excuse either, but when considering a moral comparison I think the eighteenth century can be called upon to help.

"Tis bad enough in man or woman,
To steal a goose from off the common,
But, surely, he's without excuse,
Who steals the common from the goose."

That rhyme belongs to an earlier era of privatisation, when common land was enclosed in the interests of private profit - and against the interests of the mass of the population (http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enclosure). (Also see http://www.marxist.com/ArtAndLiterature-old/british_poets1.html).

Today's equivalent is the privatisation of public services - one pernicious variant of which is outsourcing. And this modern day enclosure of the commons of our public services has its Parliamentary champions - the All Party Group on Outsourcing and Shared Services (http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm/cmallparty/register/outsourcing-and-shared-services.htm).

The Chair of this gaggle of subsidised (by the outsourcing industry) privatisation-geese is some Tory you've never heard of - but it's Vice- Chairs are purportedly Labour MPs. One is Siobhain McDonagh (http://siobhainmcdonagh.org.uk/joomla_folder/) who apparently represents Mitcham and Morden.

Having (once) risen to the giddy hights of (very) junior ministerial office, Siobhain is now focused on helping shareholders to maximise value at the expense of taxpayers. Her only previous claim to anything other than the obscurity which is her destiny is for undermining the last Government by attacking the then Prime Minister in 2008.

The other Vice-Chair is an even more obscure Labour. MP with what seems to be a name made up for satirical purposes, young Tom Blenkinsop (http://www.tomblenkinsop.com/). Tom, perhaps sensing that he will never amount to much in the labour movement, has also hitched his wagon to the interests of shareholders rather than voters (such as those in Teeside who elected him).

At least Siobhain has the excuse of having fallen for Blairism when it wn fashion. Tom's excuse is a mystery.

The challenge for UNISON (and in particular for our terminally ineffective and hideously embarrassing " Labour Link") is what we do about MPs from a Party we fund jumping so enthusiastically into bed with people who want to attack our members and savage our public services.

There is an answer (http://www.l-r-c.org.uk/) but it's not one to which our leadership is (yet?) receptive. Supporters of the Morning Star need to reflect deeply upon how they relate to the leadership of our Union. Having supporters in leading positions is of little value if those supporters serve only to divide or hold back our struggle.

A hat tip to UNISON Anonymous for blogging before I did (http://unisonactive.blogspot.com/2011/09/privateers-back-all-party-group-so.html#more). (But, comrades, why do you pull your punches? I have seen you deploy real venom when criticising those you perceive as "ultra-left" but somehow you can't quite manage that when confronted with the open goal of Blairites sponging off our movement in order to get into a position to do us real harm. Shape up now my anonymous friends! We "trots" need you "tankies" to remember which side you're on in a fight with Tories - and sooner rather than later!)

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