Labour Party funding: We’re not getting value for money!

August 31, 2008

It’s scary coming back from a holiday these days – you feel you need to have a quick check that they haven’t done away with the NHS while you weren’t looking. They haven’t, but they’re working on it.

These are bizarre times. Labour dismantles the NHS. Labour attacks the welfare state. Labour presides over a nasty ragbag of attacks on civil liberties, including the introduction of ID cards and detention without trial for ever-longer periods. Labour slashes public sector pay. Labour glories in retaining the Tories’ anti-union laws. Labour presides over an economy that’s sliding into chaos, with the costs of food and fuel spiralling way higher than the wages of most workers. Labour persecutes asylum seekers, and creates an atmosphere in which the BNP can flourish. Labour supports vicious war mongering in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Those are just the things that spring to mind as I type this…

What’s the response from our unions? Warwick 2 was a resounding silence. And the priority now for the biggest unions seems to be to throw more and more money at the Labour party in the hope that things will somehow ‘come right’. Unite, as the biggest donor, gave £1.5 million to Labour in the second quarter of this year (41% of Labour’s total funding). Unite has given an astonishing £11 million to Labour since the 2005 general election.

Are we getting our money’s worth? Clearly not. The £11 million might have been better spent campaigning against the vicious policies we’ve seen from this government. It’s interesting that Labour has been able to reduce its dependence on union funding in the last few months. The Guardian reports how they’ve done it – hefty donations from three extremely wealthy men (Sir Ronnie Cohen, private equity millionaire; Nigel Doughty, founder of private equity firm Doughty Hanson; and John Aisbett, former Goldman Sachs partner). I suspect the millionaires will get a better return on their money than the union movement.

The Tories are set to win the next election – not because they’re any less dangerous and reactionary than before, but simply because Labour has systematically betrayed working class people in Britain. To have our unions continue chucking money at the Labour Party solves nothing. Unless the Labour Party changes its policies quite systematically, it doesn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of re-election. Swapping Brown and Harman for Johnson and Cruddas (the rumoured ‘dream ticket’) brings to mind images of deckchairs and large liners heading straight for icebergs.

Unions have become a cash cow for Labour. We hand over the money and we get nothing back – while Labour lurches blindly along its set course to self-destruction. It’s time to get tough. If Labour continues attacking our members, we have to pull the plug on the money.


NHS Constitution: More privatisation, less accountability

August 9, 2008

The consensus view seems to be that a constitution for the NHS is a good idea. Gordon Brown wants one; Ara Darzi thinks it’s the best thing since sliced bread; the Tories want one; the BMA wants one; an awful lot of health campaigners agree that an NHS constitution is by definition a good thing.

The New Labour intention is that the constitution goes through a bit of fake consultation now, it gets reviewed in ten years time, and in the meantime – so we are told – the future of the NHS is assured.

Does a constitution protect the NHS? It’s worth some careful thought.

The constitution now out for consultation sets in stone the current drive towards the fragmentation and privatisation of the NHS. So we are told ‘all NHS bodies and private and third sector providers supplying NHS services will be required by law to take account of this constitution in their decisions and actions’. We are told ‘the NHS is an integrated system of organisations and services…’ – rather than the single public organisation that many campaigners believe it should be. We are told ‘The NHS is committed to working jointly with… a wide range of other private, public and third sector organisations at national and local level to provide and deliver improvements in health and wellbeing’.

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Personal budgets: a poisonous part of Darzi’s plans

August 7, 2008

I attended a Unite meeting today at which we started to put together the Union’s response to Darzi’s ‘reforms’ of the NHS. I’ve spent a fair bit of time over the last week or two reading Darzi’s final report in preparation for the meeting.

The report, rather oddly, is called ‘High Quality Care for All’. Possibly this is intended to be ironic. I’ve always assumed Darzi doesn’t write his own reports, but whoever he uses is an absolute whizz when it comes to concealing grubby realities with fine-sounding rhetoric.

One of the most poisonous strands of Darzi’s plans is the intention to roll out ‘personal budgets’. This isn’t Darzi’s own idea; it’s been touted by a ragbag of rightwing politicians for a couple of years now. Darzi claims that he has come up with the idea in response to ‘the enthusiasm we have heard from local clinicians’. Well, we hear it from health workers wherever we go, don’t we? We’re not bothered by pay cuts or redundancy or privatisation – everywhere the cry goes up from NHS staff, ‘We demand personal budgets for our patients’. Or maybe Darzi and his chums misheard.

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Still scapegoating asylum seekers

August 4, 2008

The sheer malevolence of this Government still has the power to shock.

An excellent article in yesterday’s Observer covered Labour’s proposals to stop failed asylum seekers having access to most NHS services.

Back in 2003, the Government tried to start a moral panic about ‘overseas visitors’ coming to the UK with the explicit purpose of cheating us out of ‘our’ healthcare. The then Health Secretary John Reid (remember him?) thundered: “If there are bona fide tourists dropping ill in the street, of course we will do what we have to do, but we are not mugs. There is a difference between being civilised and being taken for a ride”. Reid said the crackdown would also target failed asylum seekers who were “effectively stealing treatment from the people of this country”.

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Setback for Darzi

August 3, 2008

A good resource for health campaigners is the Pulse website. Targeted primarily at doctors, it has a lot of information both exposing the Government’s privatisation plans, and in publicising some of the resistance to them.

One story from Friday is about the Government’s plans to speed up privatisation in primary care, “DH announce major expansion for LIFT scheme”. LIFT is the PFI scheme which is now used for most capital projects in primary care. So far the scheme has allowed 48 companies to build £1.4 billion of facilities. The cost to the NHS, however, is far greater, because the payback period allows companies to make back their initial investment multiple times over.

But the scheme has been moving too slowly for the Government:

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Reversing the decline

August 1, 2008

The Government published its annual report on trade union membership this week.

The plain statistics don’t look good. Overall union density (the percentage of workers who are members of unions) fell again last year, from 28.3% to 28.0%. While there was a rise in the public sector of 0.3% to to 59.0%, in the private sector there was a decline of 0.5% to 16.1%. Equally worrying is that while the unionisation rate of the over-50s is 35.2%, that of the of the 18-24 band in work is only 9.8% rising to 22.3% for the 25-34 age band. It always used to be the young who were the driving force for unionisation, so unless young people become more involved, the future looks bleak.

We need to ask two questions – why the decline, and what can we do to reverse it?

Another blog, David Osler’s, has looked at the first question. David has come up with three reasons to explain the decline:

The first is that the labour movement frankly still has not recovered from the Thatcherite onslaught of the 1980s. The second is the fear of outsourcing, either to private companies or overseas. The third is the continuing effect of the anti-union laws.

I could add another reason. In the private sector, the decline of those areas of the economy, mining, steel, manufacturing, that were traditionally the most heavily unionised.

The trouble with all these reasons is that they don’t enable us to answer the second question – what we can do. These reasons are all outside our trade union movement, and therefore seem to leave us powerless to reverse the decline.

I don’t believe that these reasons are sufficient in themselves.

‘We haven’t recovered from the Thatcherite onslaught’. What does this mean? The younger workers – those with the lowest density of trade union membership – never faced Thatcher. What we do have is a legacy of Thatcherite ideas. These were most forcefully propagated in recent years by the Blair Government, and now by Brown. It’s not for nothing that Brown has announced that Thatcher will have a State Funeral (a ‘privilege’ only accorded to Disraeli and Churchill in the past).

There is nothing inevitable about the continuation of Thacherite ideas. They were discredited under the Major Government, and by rights should long since be dead and buried. Thatcherism was resurrected by New Labour. Just look at Labour’s current attacks on welfare, for a clear example.

The ‘fear of outsourcing’ argument implies that all management have to do is to raise the spectre and suddenly everyone will feel powerless. It’s not automatic. That’s why there are union struggles against outsourcing, sometimes successful. The campaign to bring hospital cleaning back in-house demonstrates that trade unionists are prepared to fight over the issue. I don’t believe health workers conclude, just because Darzi has come out with a report, that we all have to accept the outsourcing of provider services from the NHS.

The third reason is the anti-union laws. To a large extent these are accepted in practice by the union leaderships, who then enforce them on their members. Again, though, nothing is inevitable. There would be no unions if anti-union laws had not been broken in the past. Ted Heath’s anti-union laws in the 1970s were defeated by concerted ‘unlawful’ action. And more recently, the victory of the Shell tanker drivers seems to have been due to the willingness of Unite to push the laws to the limit.

Even the decline in the ‘old industries’ is not an adequate explanation for trade union decline. There have been continuing patterns of change in employment in Britain – and therefore in patterns of unionisation. There were virtually no white-collar trade unionists until the 1960s – now no one finds it surprising that offices and call centres are unionised.

There’s something else going on. I think the key reason that union membership has declined is simply that many people don’t believe trade unions are doing their job properly.

The decline started under the Labour Government in the 1970s, when the union leaderships forced through wage controls in the face of rampant inflation – to support ‘their’ Government. Then the union leaders complained about Thatcher, but did not confront her in the same way the unions had confronted Heath. And now we see the obscene picture of unions providing over 90% of the funding to the Labour Party – bank rolling a Government that imposes pay cuts, privatisation, and attacks on welfare, while Brown courts the CBI. It isn’t surprising that young people feel cynical about trade unions. It’s not that they are in some way reactionary or don’t care about politics. Look at the hundreds of thousands of young people who have been on anti-war marches, have been involved in anti-poverty campaigns, are fighting to protect the environment. Why on earth should these people share a political priority of propping up Brown?

Trade unions should be the natural home for radicalised young people – but to make that happen, it’s essential to change the political outlook of our union leaderships. Union leaders have to be concerned with the political issues that real people care about – and that means breaking with subservience to a neo-liberal Labour Party. These wider political issues go hand in hand, of course, with defending our members on bread and butter issues.

It’s no accident that union density in the public sector has gone up over the last year. The fights by public sector unions against the pay cuts imposed by the Government, the strikes, lobbies, and demonstrations, have led to people joining the relevant unions. We’ve seen that recently in Unite where the refusal to accept the NHS pay deal has led to people wanting to join the union. The victory at Shell enhanced our reputation massively.

But it’s when we combine politics with trade unionism that it’s possible to get a glimpse of the real potential. We can reverse the decline on the ground. My partner was on the Argos picket line in Basildon yesterday. He came back inspired. The dispute is about pay, but that’s not the whole story. The fact they have a solid organisation is because they understood the need to do more than simply talk about pay and conditions.

They have been organising the union there for 9 years. The deputy senior steward is the only woman in her section – but is a well-respected trade unionist. Fighting sexism has been central to building the union. Union members have also challenged racism.

When management brought in a lot of Polish agency staff, the union made sure they were recruited and organised. The learning reps ensured there were ESOL classes. Union members broke the strength of the gangmasters by organising alternative housing in the community for the Polish workers. Union literature is put out in Polish. Polish workers could have been used to undermine the union. Instead, union organisation is far stronger.

This is in Basildon, Essex – the home of Thatcher’s Essex man. If this sort of organisation can be built there, there is nowhere in the country it can’t happen. It requires a vision of what is possible and what is necessary. The stewards and activists in Basildon have that vision. We need to replicate their experience everywhere.

As they said on the picket line yesterday – they’ve already won just through the solidarity of the strike.

The growth of union organisation in Basildon might not make it on to the statistical radar, but it helps answer a lot of questions.