Tuesday 30 January 2007
I was in Parliament when, in the middle of the budget debate, Gordon Brown unilaterally announced without any consultation with unions or MPs 104,000 civil service job cuts.
I was at the PCS trade union conference when we heard that, in a speech to the City, the Chancellor had announced a pay cut for civil servants each year for the next three years.
I have been there listening to Ministerial statements announcing new rounds of privatisation in Government departments in services and on a scale not even dreamt of by Thatcher for selling off.
How does any New Labour Minister or MP expect public service workers to react when faced with this continuous attack on jobs, wages and conditions?
We are also faced with the risk on Thursday that the Government seeks the imprisonment for contempt of court of Brian Caton, general secretary, and Colin Moses, the president, of the Prison Officers Association.
Their crime is that when the Government tried to open new prison cells by forcing prison officers to work overtime, the POA reminded their members in a circular that the POA refuses to accept that the Home Secretary is able to demand compulsory overtime. The Government interprets this as industrial action and POA members are not allowed legally to take industrial action. And so to court!
In support of both the PCS and POA I will be joining a picket line in the morning and speaking at a strike rally in Westminster Cathedral Hall, off Victoria Street in the afternoon.
In addition I will be addressing the launch seminar organised by the Institute for Employment Rights on the Trade Union Freedom Bill.
If there is ever a time for the movement to back this Bill, it is now. We are entering a spring of discontent engendered by Government actions which are at times worse than some of the worst anti-union private companies.
Support the PCS and POA, but also the campaign for trade union rights.
Wednesday 24 January 2007
You would have expected that the issue of Iraq was so critical that Parliament would have received a report on the progress of the US/UK strategy from the Prime Minister and MPs would have been allowed to vote on Britain's role in the future.
No chance! The Prime Minister refused to even attend the debate and the Government refused to allow a vote on its strategy.
Instead, Mr Blair attended a meeting with representatives from big business and, although MPs tried to engineer a procedural vote, the manoeuvring of Government whips made this impossible.
Apart from me not a single candidate for either leader or deputy leader of the Labour party condemned this display of contempt for Parliament or made any public statement today on the need for a change of strategy.
Virtually every week now at the beginning of Prime Minister's questions, the Prime Minister and MPs offer their condolences to the family of yet another British soldier, who has lost his life in Iraq.
Surely the continuing loss of lives on such a large scale amongst Iraqi civilians and both British and US servicemen and women warrants the Prime Minister accounting to Parliament for his actions.
In addition, there is now even greater confusion about what strategy the Government is pursuing as the Prime Minister hints at the withdrawal of some British troops later this year and yet the Bush administration has indicated that it would expect the scale of the British presence to be maintained.
What is increasingly apparent to both MPs and the general public is that there is no realistic British strategy to extricate ourselves from the nightmare that is Iraq and that the US strategy of pouring in more troops holds out no prospect of success and is more likely to replicate Vietnam.
It is even more imperative now for us to step up the "Stop the War" campaign on the broadest front to demand withdrawal. The longer the delay for withdrawal the greater will be the loss of life and human suffering.
Tuesday 23 January 2007
Today, the PCS union announced that their members had voted in favour of industrial action. These public and civil servants are the very people upon whom this Government relies to deliver its agenda.
They are taking this action, with an all-out strike on 31st January, because of job cuts and privatisation which threaten public service delivery as the National Audit Office and several Select Committees have already found. PCS members also voted to strike because of pay. Over a quarter of civil servants earn less than £15,000, and are currently threatened with a below inflation pay rise - meaning a real terms cut in wages.
Today was also the TUC lobby of Parliament, and was attended by union members from across the public sector threatened with privatisation, job losses and pension cuts. The Government is heading for a 'Spring of Discontent' in the public sector, unless we urgently change course.
That's why I'm calling for a 'Warwick 2', which should include:
- The immediate introduction of a Trade Union Freedom Bill in line with ILO standards
- The end of privatisation and the return of rail, air traffic control and other services to public ownership
- Support for free and comprehensive education, and an end to Foundation and Trust schools
- An increase in the basic state pension and immediate restoration of the earnings link, and new protection for company pension schemes
- A new Health and Safety regime with stricter powers, adequate enforcement resources and effective Corporate Manslaughter legislation
- The development of a dynamic and interventionist industrial strategy to protect and grow the UK's manufacturing industries
- A positive duty on the public and private sectors to promote equality, including mandatory pay audits to close the gender and race pay gaps
Monday 22 January 2007
What I am a bit surprised about is the rapidity of the acceptance of some of our ideas and the individuals who are now espousing them.
Her are just a few extraordinary examples.
On Saturday I spoke at a well attended debate with Harriet Harman convened by Nottingham South CLP. After I had raised the issue of council housing and in response to questions from party members Harriet agreed that the way in which the Government had failed to respond to the Labour Party's conference decisions on the need to invest in council housing was not adequate and housing policy must be reviewed. She also extolled the virtues of trade union rights but didn't go as far as endorsing our Trade Union Freedom Bill.
In the same week both Peter Hain, Hilary Benn and John Cruddas, all of whom voted for the war against Iraq, became critical of the Government's policy failures over Iraq and called for a new solution to the crisis.
On Sunday even I was a bit shocked to read that John Reid had announced that he was looking at splitting up the Home Office into two departments. We had only published a press release to this effect a week before, based upon discussions with representatives from the justice unions.
On Monday (today)Compass publishes its economic policy booklet and virtually repeats the tax proposals and support for Land Value Tax that we had adopted at the Labour Representation Committee conference in 2005.
And then we see reports that ideas are circulating in Government on the need to tackle international tax avoidance. This was an issue taken up by the Tax Justice Campaign and in 2005 endorsed by the Left Economic Adisory Panel (LEAP), the group of Left economists which I set up and chair.
I knew this run of success wouldn't last so I wasn't surprised to read of the leaked memo from David Bennett, Head of Number 10's policy directorate, setting out the policy ideas for Blair's legacy agenda, currently being discussed in joint working parties with Gordon Brown's people. This memo proposes a "clean sheet redesign of Whitehall" resulting in a "radical (50%) downsizing."
The leak comes on the eve of the TUC's lobby of Parliament on privatisation and public service cuts, plus the day before the announcement of the PCS ballot on compulsory redundancies.
It confirms the scale of the threat to our public services by the privatisation obsessed leadership of Blair and Brown and the need for co-ordinated action in support of public service workers under threat whether it is an NHS worker facing privatisation or a civil servant facing compulsory redundancy. We need to stand together.
Saturday 20 January 2007
In contrast Gordon Brown has flown to India for a soundbite associating himself with Gandhi. There is a sense of mischevous absurdity in that the Big Brother saga meant that he spent more time having to talk about Jade Goody than Gandhi.
However most will understand the irony of the sight of a New Labour Chancellor, who has supported and poured billions of pounds into a war in Iraq, quoting and hailing as his hero the world reknowned advocate of non violence, Gandhi.
I sure that Mahatma Gandhi would only smile, just as most of us have smiled at the parade of ministers and deputy leadership candidates now coming forward to attack the Iraq war policy they voted for.
Largely buried in the media reports of the Chancellor's trip is a reference to one of the reasons he has undertaken the visit. The Chancellor has gone to demand that India removes one of the restrictions it introduced in the past to protect its developing economy. In the insurance sector the Indian Government has restricted foreign companies operating to 25% of the market. Gordon Brown has insisted that India opens up its insurance market to foreign competition.
This just serves as a reminder that the same old neo-colonialism and the same old ruthless free market exploitation of the Developing World continues apace.
Friday 19 January 2007
I'll be adding more over the coming weeks so make sure you keep checking back!
Thursday 18 January 2007
The story is pretty bleak with cuts in staffing, reductions in hospital beds, and threatened closures of Accident and Emergency Departments, Maternity Units and mental health services.
Understandably this is causing real consternation amongst local communities
and is damaging morale amongst health workers.
The cuts stem friom the various strategic reviews instigated by the Government, the NHS funding formula and the various privatisations and outsourcing which are being forced through. This includes the diversion of NHS funds into expensive private treament centres.
The cuts have provoked protests around the country with local community led campaigns being set up often linking up nationally through the "Keep the NHS Public" and "London Health Emergency" campaigning organisations. Ironically even Cabinet Ministers have joined local protests from John Reid to Hazel Blears.
One of the common complaints raised with me at meetings is that these cuts are being rushed through without proper local community involvement or national consultations and without adequate thought for the long term consequences of the closures of local A and E, Maternity and mental health units or the staffing cuts.
For this reason and in response to the many appeals made to me at local meetings I have tabled yesterday in Parliament an Early Day Motion calling for a moratorium in the implementation of these cuts pending an independent review of the long term strategy for critical care services, the NHS funding formula and privatisation policies, fully involving health care staff and local communities.
This would give the Government and all of us the opportunity of looking again at the impact of these large scale cuts and to assess where these policies are leading to in terms of the long term future of the NHS.
I would urge everyone to press their Member of Parliament to sign this EDM so that we can press the Government to act. The EDM is number 655, entitled "Moratorium in Health Cuts."
I have also called an open meeting in Parliament on the NHS cuts to bring together local and national campaigning groups and trade unions to lobby MPs for the moratorium. The meeting is at 7pm on 27 February in the Wilson Room, Portcullis House, Westminster.
Come along to help press for action.
Wednesday 17 January 2007
Take two examples this week.
Last night I attended a meeting of Care Workers in Barnet, convened by Unison and the GMB trade unions. A few years ago the local council privatised its care homes, passing them over to a housing association and a management company. Just before Christmas the care workers received a letter from the company basically telling them that if they didn't sign a new contract of employment accepting a huge pay cut and severe cutbacks in their working conditions, they would be sacked.
These workers are extremely dedicated to the elderly people they care for but have now been forced to ballot for strike action to protect their jobs. At the meeting relatives of the elderly people living in the care homes came along to express their support for the care workers if they take industrial action. It was a moving meeting and I could feel the sadness that the care workers felt at being forced to even contemplate taking action but also their strong determination to fight back against this injustice.
Today the Government announced a massive privatisation scheme in the Ministry of Defence with the selling off of MOD training in a lengthy contract worth billions of pound. This service is to be handed over to the private sector at a cost of about 2000 jobs.
The company, Metrix, has created a virtual monopoly, with the innevitable result in due course that the Government will be vulnerable to demands for further taxpayers money and further cuts in jobs, pay and conditions of employment.
All the commitments from the Government that its policies would be evidence based and that it did not have an ideological preference for the private sector were rendered laughable when it refused to allow an in-house bid for the training service.
All these privatisations stem from Gordon Brown's obsession with the private sector, an essential element of his neo-con mindset. Surely there can be nobody in our movement, particularly in our trade unions who can have any further illusions that a Brown government would do anything other than continue its large scale programme of privatising what is left of our public services.
Friday 12 January 2007
Blair's speech was equally delusional, littered with statements of the blindingly obvious, further desperate attempts to rewrite history to justify his disastrous invasion of Iraq and more irresponsible slurs on the Muslim community, which will innevitably contribute to the stoking of the flames of Islamophobia.
In the speech the Prime Minister remained in a state of denial over the role his support for Bush's foreign policies, particularly the invasion of Iraq, has played in recruiting terrorists. He sought to portray himself as the leader of a warrior nation taking the decisions to exercise "hard power", i.e. to wage war, which other feckless politicians and countries have shirked.
Tony Blair has used the British army to enable him to strut the world stage, making the most catastrophic foreign policy mistakes in the history of this country since Suez, which many believe have been paid for with the suffering and lost lives of both British military and Iraqi civilian families.
He tried to argue in his speech that the choice for our country was between a country that could use both humanitarian and miltary means to secure peace and progress in the world or a country that took the easy way out by avoiding conflict and just concentrating on the much lees risky role of conflict prevention and peacekeeping.
This is the classic New Labour rhetorical device of setting out unreal options. Blairite sophistry at its worst.
The choice is not between some cowardly avoidance of one's duty and the brave commitment to war and blood sacrifice.
It is the choice between a Prime Minister who seeks to promote and secure peace and one that engages in the bloody invasion of a country in support of a Bush regime whose motives were to secure the control Iraqi oil and a dominant strategic military presence in the Middle East.
Thursday 11 January 2007
I have to say that the only symmetry I see is the dreadful tragedy of virtually every Prime Minister's Question Time being prefaced by the tributes to recent British casualties in Iraq and the sending of our heartfelt condolences to their families, with a similar tragic body count being undertaken in towns and cities across the US.
To counter any obvious assessments that an increase in US troops could lead to more British troops being sent to Iraq, the Government spin doctors have used this period to suggest that it is hoped that there will be some British troop withdrawals by the Summer.
The reality is more likely to be that the increase in US military activity will result in a corresponding increase in the pressure and demands placed upon British forces, with subsequent demands for an increase in the deployment of British troops.
Let me make it clear. Any increase in the use of British military forces must be authorised by Parliament and I am calling upon the leadership of the Labour party to give that commitment now.
In addition, if Blair and Brown sanction the increased use of British forces in Iraq, I will seek to obtain sufficient nominations from MPs to trigger an immediate leadership challenge.
We cannot stand by and allow Blair and Brown to put further lives at risk in our name without the membership of our party being given the opportunity to have its say.
My fear now is that the failure of Bush, Blair and Brown to make a serious attempt to engage in a diplomatic and peaceful resolution of the crisis in Iraq means that even when US and British troops are withdrawn the bloodbath will continue.
Why can't Bush, Blair and Brown just learn from history?
The Vietnam strategy of pouring in more and more troops failed once and will fail again.
Sunday 7 January 2007
At the same time it has become increasingly public knowledge that the Bush regime has given the ok to Israel to prepare a missile and/or air attack on Iran.
It is almost impossible to find any expert commentator that believes the "troops surge" strategy will work. In fact most agree with General Wesley Clark, former Supreme Commander of Nato, that the "surge strategy will backfire."
Where is the New Labour leadership in all this?
Clearly the Prime Minister must be aware of the Bush policy decision on both Iraq and Iran and by his silence we can only judge that he is supporting Bush once again.
The real test of judgement and leadership over these issues falls not on Tony Blair but on Gordon Brown.
In his interview with Andrew Marr today, despite supporting the invasion of Iraq and supporting every foriegn policy measure demanded of Britain by Bush and Blair, the Chancellor is now assuring us that if he becomes leader Britain will pursue a more independent foreign policy from the Bush administration.
Well here is the first oportunity for Gordon Brown to demonstrate how independent his foreign policy would be.
As General Clark states in Iraq "the neocons' vision has failed." Britain needs to differentiate itself from the failed and increasingly dangerous Middle East policy of George Bush.
I will be tabling an Early Day Motion on the first day of Parliament tomorrow which will express opposition to any further increase in US or British troops in Iraq and to an Israeli attack on Iran. The EDM will call for the development of an exit strategy for Britain from Iraq based upon diplomacy not miltary action and on the political engagement of Iran and Syria in securing peace in Iraq.
The test of the Chancellor's new found independence will be whether he publicly supports this approach or remains silent whilst the Bush regime blunders further into igniting the Middle East.
Friday 5 January 2007
This well attended meeting was an enthusiastic discussion of current government policies and the alternative political programme rank and file members of our movement want to see implemented by a Labour Government.
What is clear from this and all the other meetings of activists I have attended is the huge contrast between what grassroots members are experiencing on the ground and the analysis and statements made by the Labour Party elite in Westminster.
If you listen to members of the Labour and Trade Union movement and members of the general public they tell you straightforwardly that what is turning them off the Labour Party as evidenced in poll after poll is the policies. They were promised so much, expected so much and hoped for so much but have been disillusioned by the delivery of so little.
Like any other representative of the Labour Party I can recite from Labour Party briefings the long list of achievements under Labour but it just doesn't wash any more. Iraq, privatisation, health cuts, public sector pay and job cuts, pensions, housing costs, presures and long hours at work, insecurity and fear of crime and many other issues crowned by allegations of sleaze are just thrown back at you.
Rank and file members can see this, why can't the Labour elite?
Instead yesterday we witnessed three stereotypical reactions to the perceived sleepwalking of Labour into electoral crisis.
On one extreme in testing the water for his putative leadership challenge John Reid presented us with the classic argument that it's not the New Labour policies that are alienating our support but the fact that we haven't gone far enough with them. This "if in a hole keep digging" strategy somehow doesn't inspire.
The other response is portrayed in the approach taken by John Cruddas' campaign and reflected in the article in today's Guardian based upon a poll commisioned by this extremely well funded campaign. This policy free aproach seeks to avoid upsetting anyone politically by concentrating on the organisational collapse of the Labour Party, the decline in Labour membership and the lack of activity of the party on the ground. This approach avoids virtually any reference to policies for fear of rocking the policy boat or being exposed as having voted for them or being seen within Westminster or the media to be anything but "mainstream."
The argument that the malaise of the Labour Party is mainly organisational not political just reverses the reality.
Labour Party membership and the commitment of Labour Party has declined dramatically because of the immense disillusionment if not anger of Labour Parry supporters with many of the policies voted for by Labour MPs and implemented by a Labour Government which they fought so hard to have elected.
To adapt the Clinton campaign slogan "It's the policies stupid!"
Even the muted and much coded response from the Brown camp seems to admit that there is a need for policy change with references to being in a policy "rut" over issues like Iraq. Nobody gives any credibility to these attempts at triangulation as Brown's role as the architect and advocate of these New Labour policies is blinding obvious to everyone except the occasional trade union general secretary desperately casting round to justify their personal support for Brown.
At last night's meeting in Birmingham a member of the Labour Party expressed his support for our campaign because, as he said, this campaign is the only one explaining the need for policy change and offering an alternative policy programme.
That's what we will continue to do and we will continue the programme of meetings for activists around the country to engage rank and file members of the movement in development of policies and campaigns.
Of course it is frustrating not gaining as much coverage as we would like in the national media but this will always be the case. We are not part of the establishment, not part of that Westminster dinner party circuit of MPs and media. We never will be.
Also we do not offer the safe option to allow the safe channelling of members frustration to allow them to let off steam to no effect.
Our campaign is a direct challenge to the ideology, the policies and the centralised organisational dominance the New Labour estabishment. It is a serious project for developing a strategy for 21st century socialism in Britain. That is what makes it exciting but of course makes it all the more challenging. Of course we are swimmming against the establishment stream but all the evidence demonstrates that we have majority support in the grassroots of our movement. We need to give people more confidence in that support. Steve Biko once commented that the most effective weapon of the oppressor was the mind of the oppressed.
A key role in the coming months is to explain to members of our movement what a gigantic opportunity and what power they will have in their hands very shortly through this leadership campaign to reclaim our party and reunite the government with its supporters.
Thursday 4 January 2007
There has been a growing sense of grievance resulting particularly from the actions taken by the Chancellor.
How does any Labour Minister expect public service workers to react in the face of a concerted programme launched by the Chancellor over a two year period to cut their jobs and their pay?
How does any Labour Minister expect the PCS to react as a union when these policies are announced by the Chancellor unilaterally, without consultation and contary to repeated assurances given by Ministers about dialogue and co-operation?
As Chair of the PCS Parliamentary Group I have witnessed at first hand the way in which the Government has treated its own staff with a contempt worthy of any ruthless private sector employer.
On job cuts it should be remembered how the Chancellor announced unilaterally in the middle of his 2005 budget speech a cut of over 100,000 civil service jobs.
On pay it should also be recalled how the Chancellor announced in a speech to the City of London that public sector workers are to have a pay cut forced upon them over the next two years.
On privatisation it should be appreciated that as a result of a Treasury driven obsession with privatisation, more public service jobs have now been privatised under New Labour in 10 years than in the 18 years of Tory Government.
The result is not only an increasingly demoralised and angry workforce but also services grinding to a halt in some areas of government. Is it any wonder that when 30,000 jobs are cut in the Department of Work and Pensions there is an 30% increase in the number of pensioners failing to take up the benefits they are entitled to? The one million unopened pieces of post at Inland Revenue and the 2 million unanswered telephone inquiries in government call centres tell a story about the impact of job cuts.
In many departments low pay is endemic and the failure of Government to implement its promised pay coherence policy across the civil service has meant staff doing the same job working on widely differing pay rates. To rub salt in the wound of this grievance, the Government is now attempting in some departments to introduce local pay awards which would allow it to pay staff less in areas where pay rates are lower in the local economy.
The reason compulsory redundancies have become an issue is not because public service workers are refusing to co-operate with changes to the way services are delivered. Far from it, public sector workers have shown a real willingness to change and adapt and indeed enthusiasm for improving the way their services respond to the needs of our community. What is angering our public servants is that it has been demonstrated compulsory redundancies are avoidable with proper consultation and the effective use of redeployment within the civil service and yet the Government seems hell bent on forcing through compulsory redundancies almost as a matter of principle.
Undoubtedly the Government will seek to isolate the PCS and try and portray this dispute as somehow "political." Ministers are already being rolled out into the media to denounce the ballot.
However it is clear that the Government has significantly underestimated the strength of feeling amongst public sector workers and is in danger of drifting into a Spring of discontent.
I urge all trade unionists, especially in the public sector , to give their backing to the PCS and to press Labour MPs to assist in this campaign against cuts in jobs and pay.
The TUC' s lobby of Parliament on 23rd January provides an ideal opportunity to get this message across the MPs and Government Ministers.
I will be using every chance I get to urge the Government to pull back from this prospect of such a damaging dispute but if it comes to industrial action I will be joining PCS picket lines to demonstrate solidarity.
The Government is drifting into a Spring of discontent.
Wednesday 3 January 2007
Over the last 6 months I have spoken at dozens of meetings of Labour Party members and supporters. As a result I have most probably met more grassroots activists than most Labour MPs or Party representatives.
A small but I believe significant thing that has struck me in these meetings is that fewer and fewer of our supporters refer to "our government" but instead say "the" government.
What does this mean?
I believe that it demonstrates the distancing of even our most loyal supporters and activists from what the government has come to represent under New Labour.
Of course there have been many policies over the last 10 years which we all support and nobody wants to see the Tories back. However the consistent message from the grassroots is that it's time to learn some lessons. honestly admit past mistakes and to move on.
People are worried that after a decade in office Labour has not realised the full potential of government and is at risk of losing power because it has made a series of catastrophic policy mistakes from Iraq to privatisation and the provoking of a forthcoming spring of discontent in the public sector.
People are crying out for a Labour government that provides real inspiration, describing the society we want to create and spelling out the small step policies we will implement to take us there.
At home they want to see a Labour Government transforming our daily lives by honestly addressing the pressures many face including inequality, poverty, low pay, debt, long hours and exploitation at work, housing pressures and, yes, a proper discussion on crime and community harm that goes beyond the failure of just locking more and more people up and attacking civil liberties.
Abroad they want to be able to take pride in a Labour Government playing a role in helping to secure world peace and overcome poverty, hunger, destitution and injustices in the developing world.
In 2007 the Labour movement has a clear choice to make.
Some will want to continue in the policy direction which has alienated so many of our supporters and put our hold on government at risk. They will want to spend their time justifying self evident policy failures and provoke even further disputes and disillusionment in our ranks by forcing through more of the same.
Others, like me, will want to use this year to explain what our society could look like under a transforming Labour government and to inspire people once again with the potential that we could have in government to enact this twenty first century socialism.