Friday, August 30, 2013

A good day

Like (I am sure) other readers of this blog, I spent today embroiled in the painful task of consulting on redundancies made necessary by the slash and burn economic policy of our hateful Coalition Government. It's hard to feel good about work where the best we can achieve is generally damage limitation.
It was, however, slightly cheering to do this work on a day when that Government had suffered a serious - and well deserved - defeat in Parliament. The defeat of both the Government's appalling call for "in principle" support for military action in Syria and the Opposition's amendment (which did not rule out such action) makes UK involvement in an attack on Syria politically impossible for the time being. It is a welcome setback also for those who have long been planning an assault on Iran.
More than ten years after the largest demonstration in the history of this country it seems the sound of our marching still echoes around the corridors of power.
This is, without question, a good thing.
That's not to say that there's any particular cause for cheer in relation to the horrendous position of the Syrian people, caught between the Scylla of Assad''s brutality and the Charybdis of the opposition.
But UK support for Western military intervention would not have alleviated their plight, the resolution of which will not and cannot come from London (or for that matter from Washington or Paris). All we can honestly do is send moral and material (not military) aid to the Syrian people, who face the unavoidable challenge of taking control of their own fate.
The armchair warriors, led by Blair, may bemoan the UK "turning its back on the world", failing to accept responsibility or even endangering our "special relationship" with the USA.
Let them whinge!
We have little enough to amuse us these days, so we ought to be allowed to enjoy the impotent purple faced rage of Dan Hodges and Paddy Ashdown (as much as the damage to the reputation of our odious Prime Minister).
What Parliament has done, however "accidentally," has been to break the spell of the UK's "Walter Mitty Great Power status".
About bloody time.
How about we give up the permanent seat on the UN Security Council to which the UK is entitled by nothing other than the lingering stench of empire?
How about we withdraw our troops from their international deployments?
If the "first industrial nation" (and former pre-eminent imperial power) wants to show real responsibility in the twenty first century then - as John McDonnell said in Parliament last night - let's offer our help as assistance with conflict resolution (rather than cruise missiles).
Instead of posing as a moth-eaten ersatz "superpower" with our pathetic nuclear weapons (which are entirely dependent upon the USA) why could we not reinvent this country as a nation of inveterate peacemongers?
However it happened, our deeply flawed Parliamentary democracy today delivered a body blow to the received wisdom of seventy years of UK foreign policy.
In the midst of all these cuts and job losses, this weekend sensible trade union activists will allow ourselves a few moments to smile.
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Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Labour should oppose the attack on Syria!

I mostly blog about a limited range of topics - but I never forget that, as trade unionists, we are part of a global movement which unites workers regardless of nationality.

When war comes working class people are sent to kill other working class people on behalf of their respective ruling classes (swelling the coffers of the arms companies).

That's why I was disappointed (if not, sadly, surprised) to see Ed Miliband miss a once in a lifetime opportunity to differentiate himself from this Government by opposing military action against Syria.

Ed Miliband may have surrounded his suggestion that the "Opposition" front bench might support military action against Syria with caveats (http://labourlist.org/2013/08/miliband-says-labour-would-consider-backing-action-on-syria-but-with-conditions/). He may think that is a measured, statesmanlike approach from a future Prime Minister.

However, the soundbite is of Labour backing for action - and if the leaderships of the three main parties are seen to stand together in this way, the political price to be paid by Members of Parliament prepared to ignore popular opposition to this intervention will be massively discounted.

Diane Abbot emerges with far greater credit for having been clear about her opposition to action which will make a bad situation worse (http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2013/aug/27/diane-abbott-labour-syria).

I know some on the left decry reference to international law as somehow "bourgeois" (some even take the topsy turvy view that the correct "anti-imperialist" outlook is to give vocal - if pointless - unconditional support to whichever tyrant the West has decided it has an issue with).

Thankfully, opposition to the coming bombardment of Syria need not equate to support for the Assad regime - and support for the rule of law is not at all a bad starting point for socialists. There is no lawful basis upon which the US, UK, French (or whoever) can attack Syria without the support of the United Nations.

Since both Cameron and Miliband have referred to taking action only that is "legal" perhaps Members of Parliament can find a way to amend tomorrow's Government motion to clarify that no missiles are fired absent UN approval?


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Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Transparency of the motives for the Lobbying Bill

It's a good thing more and more people are waking up to the potential implications of the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill (http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2013/aug/25/lobbying-bill-charities-campaign-election). With the Electoral Commission describing its restrictions on political campaigning by non-Party organisations as "unworkable", a view echoed by the National Council of Voluntary Organisations (http://www.thirdsector.co.uk/Policy_and_Politics/article/1208760/NCVO-asks-Cabinet-Office-reconsider-unworkable-lobbying-bill/) there may be some hope that the Government will back off.

Some of us had spotted this earlier in the summer (http://jonrogers1963.blogspot.co.uk/2013/07/whats-this-about-transparency-of.html?m=1) - thanks, it has to be said, to Keith Ewing (http://www.tradeunionfreedom.co.uk/keith-ewing-another-political-attack-on-free-speech/).

Someone I've never heard of, Tom Brake MP, who claims to be Deputy Leader of the House of Commons says we shouldn't worry because Ministers don't mean to restrict campaigning by charities (http://www.libdemvoice.org/tom-brake-on-38-degrees-and-the-transparency-and-lobbying-bill-35874.html). I note that this illiberal anti-democrat has nothing to say about whether it is the intention to restrict trade unions.

However, and this is something you think even the Lib Dems would have picked up by now as they have been in Government for three years, the interpretation of legislation is not determined by warm words from Ministers (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/transparency-of-lobbying-bill-response-to-38-degrees) but rather depends on the courts.

Even if the wording in the Bill which could outlaw next year's Trades Union Congress really is just unintended ambiguity (http://m.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-23750845) it only takes a small number of rogue extremists on the wilder shores of the Tory backbenches (http://turc.org.uk/) to turn that ambiguity into mischievous litigation, the outcome of which could be catastrophic for democracy.

As political parties continue to shrink and atrophy, it is to non-party campaigning organisations that people look to give voice to concerns which those of us who see the need for parties might wish they would channel through party politics. Clumsy attempts to clamp down on non-party campaigning won't drive people back into party membership.

Presumably the Lib Dems are fronting this because they feel they have least to lose from it - and are most in favour of the state funding of political parties in the direction of which this tends. However, these restrictions should surely be opposed by any true liberal (or, for that matter, by libertarian Tories) as well as by all Labour MPs.

I hope campaigners don't allow themselves to be fobbed off and pile the pressure on MPs over the next few days. 38 Degrees have an online petition at https://secure.38degrees.org.uk/page/speakout/chloe-smith-lobbying-bill.


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Saturday, August 17, 2013

Fight for a flat rate pay increase - support Option Two in the NJC consultation

I was unimpressed last year by the decision of the UNISON National Joint Council (NJC) Committee to make a pay claim which was not for a definite amount but rather for a “substantial increase.”

I think it is clear that neither the employers nor trade union members are encouraged to take seriously a campaign for a pay rise which dare not speak its name.

I am therefore encouraged that both of the two options on which the NJC Committee are now consulting UNISON branches do at least have the merit of naming an amount for the pay rise which they seek.

So far so good.

This is an important year for local government pay negotiations. The UNISON branch circular makes clear the fears of our officials that, if we don’t deliver a decent increase in NJC pay, more and more authorities may abandon national bargaining – and also that, if community campaigners prove themselves more effective than trade union negotiators in delivering a living wage then trade unions could be marginalised in relation to future pay settlements.

 Whilst these fears come from the same Jeremiahs who have been prophesying widespread derecognition for years, they are not entirely without foundation. By the time of next year’s pay settlement it will be twelve years since we secured anything approaching a satisfactory outcome from a pay round – and twenty five years since anything that could honestly be called any sort of victory.

The setting of a pay claim is only the first tentative step in trying to put this situation to rights, but it is not an unimportant one. Therefore it seems to me vital that UNISON activists engage with the consultation process – and that we secure the support of the NJC Committee for the option which sets us on the path to a successful pay campaign.

Both options adopt the application of the Living Wage to the lowest point on the pay spine as their starting point. This is not an unreasonable attempt to attach to our cause the public support which the idea of a “living wage” has won.

Option One starts with the observation that this would require an increase of 15.5% to the lowest pay point, and therefore calls for a 15.5% increase to the whole pay spine. This means calling for progressively greater hourly increases up to £3.29 an hour at the top of the pay spine.

Option Two starts with the observation that this would require an increase of £1 an hour to the lowest pay point, and therefore calls for an increase of £1 an hour to the whole pay spine. This means calling for progressively smaller percentage pay increases, falling to 4.6% at the top of the pay spine.

Option One appears to have a significant drawback from the point of view of London branches , since we have a higher London Living Wage, which has been adopted by a far higher proportion of our employers. There is a risk that Option One would not offer any increase for those already earning the London Living Wage (where this exceeds the relevant pay spine point).

A national pay claim which had significant drawbacks for London would inevitably give rise to pressure for London pay bargaining, which would not be in the interests of any of us in the long term – and would not be in the interests of those outside London in the short term.

There is, however, a more substantial objection to Option One, which is that – even though it proposes a percentage increase across the pay spine which would not even restore our real pay to the level it was at in 2009 it proposes an increase of almost one sixth in the pay budget simply in order to maintain the differentials for the higher pay points.

Option Two is the progressive option, precisely because, as it is a claim for a flat rate pay increase, it would squeeze differentials. At present someone on the top of the pay spine earns 3.38 times as much as someone on the lowest point. Whereas Option One would leave that unchanged, Option Two reduces that differential to just over 3 times as much.

Squeezing differentials gives rise to no Equal Pay problems – and given that it is well documented that the lower paid face higher price inflation than those of us who are less low paid there is a social justice argument for a flat rate increase – as well as a compelling equality argument (since the gender – and race – pay gaps in local government are a product of the proportion of workers, by race and gender, on each pay point, reducing the differentials generally will reduce the pay gaps).

A simple claim for at least one pound an hour more for all local government workers (bearing in mind that the Living Wage will be uprated in the autumn), which would deliver the Living Wage for the lowest paid and still offer an above inflation pay rise to the highest paid is a good starting point for the campaign which now needs to be started.

Branches have until 4 October to let their Regional Heads of Local Government have a response to the consultation. Let’s go for Option Two and begin to prepare now for the sustained strike action that will be necessary to defend our living standards and our trade union.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

State Funding? No Thanks!

Today's row about a bequest provides an opportunity for advocates of state funding of political parties to assert that "With each successive scandal, the case for state funding grows a little stronger. " (http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2013/08/donation-row-tories-and-lib-dems-might-not-be-blame-they-look-shifty-rats)



Sorry.



No.



There is no case for state funding of political parties - at least no case consistent with democracy.



There is probably a case for political parties spending less and employing fewer people.



There is certainly a case for engaging with and energising citizens to give our time, energy and money to causes in which we believe.



Politics - if it is to contribute to the democratic necessity of holding the state to account has to be, in essence, a voluntary activity rooted in civil society.



Who pays the piper calls the tune and state funded political parties will serve the interests of the state not the citizens.



Therefore democrats should believe in the voluntary funding of political parties.



This will, of course, mean that the Left will always be materially disadvantaged.



Obviously.



Politics practiced by and for the poor, oppressed and disadvantaged will always and inevitably be less well resourced than politics practiced by and for the wealthy and privileged.



That's why millions of us get together in trade unions and understand that these need to act in the wider society beyond the workplace. (That's why we're fighting to defend the Labour-union link).



The task of the Left is to level the political playing field by leveling the social and economic playing field.



Ultimately we need to get rid of the rich and the society in which they thrive like parasites on the fruits of others' labour.



That may take a while yet and, in the mean time, Labour needs to motivate our supporters to resource our activities - not yearn for taxpayers' money which would come with strings attached that would tie us forever to the status quo.

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Thursday, August 08, 2013

Statement of the "Defend the Link" platform...

A number of socialists are participating in debates around the nature of the political party which may emerge from the Left Unity project initiated by Ken Loach (http://leftunity.org/) - indeed, Left Unity is gathering "platforms" at such pace it may soon be seen as the Clapham Junction of the left.

With the greatest of respect to all comrades involved in those debates (and indeed to those other socialists who are abstaining from that debate, having already found their own revolutionary Party), I can't help feel that their debate amounts to arguing about where to build an extension to a house facing imminent demolition.

The revolutionary left beyond the Labour Party is as weak, divided and irrelevant as at any time in my adult life - and this is clearly related to the similarly desperate predicament of the Labour Left (not to mention the virtual absence of a Communist Party of any weight or influence).

In the absence of both a global alternative to capitalism and a credible domestic alternative to neo-liberalism, the reaction of workers to a series of political "offers" from the left over the past twenty years has been (at least south of the border - and outside of some very specific local circumstances) one of consistently supreme indifference.

There is a massive constituency for socialist politics well to the left of current Labour policy and practice - but this constituency is not available, nationally, to be won to a "new political project". It expects (not unreasonably) to be offered a left alternative by a credible party of (potential) Government.

For as long as the Labour Party retains an organic link to the organised working class through the collective affiliation of some trade unions to the Party it retains both the potential to be an expression of the interests and policies of the organised working class and the potential to be a party of Government.

It is for this reason that our ruling class, its spokespeople and political representatives have always hated and feared the relationship between Labour and the trade unions, expressing that hatred in the 1927 Act which replaced "opting out" of political funds with "opting in".

With almost thirty years of hindsight we can now begin to grasp the scale of the ambition of the Thatcher Governments to neutralise political opposition to our ruling class, which far exceeded the ambition of the Baldwin Government in 1927.

By rewriting the terms of the "postwar settlement" Thatcherism drove Labour rightward - and its bastard child, Blairism, planted the seeds which, watered by Lord Sainsbury's proto-Tory paid help (Progress) and tended now by Ed Miliband, germinate as a proposal to end collective affiliation by trade unions to the Labour Party.

For Ed Miliband this is not a conscious attack upon trade unions. He is simply playing a game which he believes will lead to the state funding of political parties (so that the catastrophic decline in popular engagement with political parties over past decades ought not to undermine the career prospects of the career politicians whose pursuit of the "centre ground" has contributed to that decline).

He's wrong of course. The Tories will outwit him. His motive in any case is reactionary in the extreme. None of that matters much.

What matters is that we are on the brink of the eviction of the trade unions from a position of (even potential) influence over our political life.

Socialists ought to see that, whatever our sound and considerable criticisms of the way in which the union link has been used for many years, the defence of the link is a task of the very greatest importance.

Workers and our trade unions need a political voice in the here and now even more than we need a revolutionary party that may one day lead us to a new Jerusalem - and also more than we need a particular result out of the next General Election.

A year from now, if Ed Miliband has had his way, it may be time for socialists to squabble about which "platform" to stand on to catch the train to the new politics of the future - right now though anyone with a grasp of socialist politics should be focused relentlessly upon defending the Labour-union link.

Already two affiliates (TSSA and BFAWU) are aligned with the "Defend the Link" campaign and its "Tolpuddle Statement" (http://defendthelink.wordpress.com/). Other trade unions - and CLPs - need to stand firm.

The establishment of a Party which (however imperfectly) gave voice to the interests of our class gave genuine meaning to the struggle of the Chartists and Suffragettes - without a working class party the franchise is a tool of little use for working people.

The immediate task of any socialist in Britain must be to defend the relationship between our trade unions and the political party we created.

I'll look for another "platform" if the Labour Party train definitively departs from its relationship with the trade unions - but, since that would be an enormous strategic defeat, I shall hope never to have to do so.

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Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Zero hours? We barely have more time than that to save Labour

Although I'm on holiday I'm still reading the papers.

As so often Seumas Milne hits the nail on the head (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/aug/06/david-cameron-britain-dockers-line-up-back) - zero hours contracts take us back 130 years to crowds of men scrabbling for work on the docks. This is what the triumph of Thatcherism looks like.

Milne is equally right that we have to fight back - and need both stronger trade unions and a Labour leadership willing to fight. The New Unionism of the 1880s, which saw the Docks strike that was the birth of the TGWU (now the heart of UNITE), was also a vital moment in the process which led the trade unions to seek and find a political voice in Parliament.

We need such a voice again - and that means that any attempt to destroy the collective affiliation of trade unions to the Labour Party must be resisted and defeated (not accommodated to or compromised with). Without collective affiliation the Labour Party might remain (vaguely) of the Centre-Left, it might even continue to advance the occasional social democratic policy objective - but it would not be (even potentially) the political voice of the organised working class. We would no longer have even the hope of such a voice from Labour.

The trade unions need to stand together to defend the political gains of the past - and as by far the largest affiliate, the greatest responsibility falls upon UNITE. That's why it is so important that leading members of UNITE are signing up online to the "Tolpuddle statement" in defence of the Labour-union link (http://defendthelink.wordpress.com/). It is though a responsibility upon all of us to mobilise to defend the existence of a Party of Labour - and I hope all readers will sign the statement.

The most important question confronting the labour movement in the UK in the summer of 2013 is whether, come the summer of 2014, there will still be a political party which (at least in principle) aspires to represent the interests of the organised working class, with which it is organically linked. This question is more important even than who will be Prime Minister come the summer of 2015.

Any trade union - any trade unionist - who would collude in the breaking of a Labour-union link founded upon collective affiliation so as to avoid facing down the Labour Leader we hope to see in Downing Street in 2015 would be a sorry fool. It's not just that the maintenance of a trade union voice in Parliament has an importance that transcends this or that General Election - it's that Labour won't win in 2015 without adopting the policies advocated by the unions (and it won't do that if we allow it's Leader to pursue the Blair/Progress agenda of taking UK politics back before 1900).

We won't fight back against zero hours contracts with zero political influence for trade unions - and while we have more than zero hours in which to wage this fight, we don't have long...


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