Labour may be toast – let’s make sure we’re not!

April 24, 2009

At least two papers carried the same joke as commentary on Wednesday’s budget. They captioned the ubiquitous picture of Alistair Darling and his wife having breakfast together before he heads off to make his budget speech. Mrs Darling says, ‘Toast, dear?‘. Our Al looks up from the Financial Times and replies, ‘Yes, we are’. It made me laugh – but only briefly.

The reality is that Labour is finished. ‘Snowball’s chance in hell’ is the phrase that springs to mind. Labour will get smashed at the next election for the simple reason it has betrayed its core voters, again and again and again. The UK’s biggest trade unions have allowed the Labour Party to betray workers (and pensioners, and children, and single parents, and the unemployed, and people who need affordable housing, and so on and so forth) on the basis that however bad the Labour Government gets, they’re not quite as bad as the Tories. By letting Blair and Brown off the hook, our union leaders may have effectively signed Labour’s death warrant.

The miserable political bankruptcy of Labour has been matched by the rising tide of sleaze. The last few months have been extraordinarily reminiscent of the dying days of John Major’s Tory Government, before Labour swept to victory in 1997.

A few days ago I warned of the likelihood of massive cuts in public spending lying just ahead. Analysis of the budget is starting to confirm this. Today’s Guardian carries genuinely frightening predictions, with two articles outlining the crisis into which our public services will plunge. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has picked up on a £45 billion gap in Darling’s plans, and predicts the deepest cuts since the 1970s. The IFS analysis is of an average 2.3% a year cut across government departments from 2011/12 onwards.

The second article reports on responses to the budget.  The Lib Dems’ analysis is of a fall in NHS spending of £2.3 billion from 2010/11 onwards, with a further £600 million to be taken from the Department for Children, Schools and Families. I don’t for one second trust the Lib Dems, but commentators with considerably more integrity make the same warnings. The Trade Union Co-ordinating Group, representing nine unions that are independent of Labour, believes that the Government intends disastrous public spending cuts that will dwarf anything ever attempted by Margaret Thatcher. John McDonnell MP says, ‘These cuts are catastrophic. People are worried by the combination of cuts and asset sales and privatisation… there will be massive cuts in public expenditure. If you combine the cuts with privatisation this is on a scale that has never been seen before’. 

This is a warning that has to be taken seriously.

There are two ways forward. One is a descent into savage attacks on workers that are not met with resistance – and bitterness and despair can provide a fertile breeding ground for the Nazi BNP. The other way forward for us is that workers organise and fight back – black and white, gay and straight, women and men, public and private sector – all of us standing together and demanding that we do not pay the price for the bosses’ crisis.

There are obvious stepping stones towards this. The Visteon dispute shows that closures and redundancies can be fought. We have to do everything we can to ensure that this very winnable dispute ends in a clear victory for the workers. The key to winning this one is practical solidarity. We also have the Unite Demonstration for Jobs in Birmingham on 16th May – an opportunity for a massive show of strength by rank and file trade unionists. We should aim to have victorious Visteon workers heading up the march!

And crucially, we need to demand that trade union leaders do their job and lead.  If we don’t have a serious, organised defence of jobs, pay and public services, the consequences for workers are close to unthinkable.

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Got five minutes spare before 30th April?

April 20, 2009

There’s an important leaflet here from Keep Our NHS Public.

This is about the ‘Co-operation and Competition Panel’ – a fancy name for a body that will allow the private sector to overturn local decisions to keep NHS services publicly provided and publicly accountable.

It’s astonishing that a Government that is so discredited and so unpopular remains determined to destroy the welfare state and the NHS. Brown’s ambition is seemingly to go down in history as the man who succeeded where Margaret Thatcher failed.

There’s a consultation exercise going on now around the Co-operation and Competition Panel. It’s not intended to be a real exercise in democracy, as this might actually mean asking people if they want their NHS to be sold off to the profiteers. However, it does no harm at all to respond along the lines suggested by KONP. If you have a spare five minutes before 30th April, give it a go.

The consultation documents are here  if you can’t access them from the KONP leaflet.


Massive public spending cuts just around the corner?

April 19, 2009

I can’t keep track of the number of media reports I’ve seen in the last few weeks calling for public spending cuts. This is rapidly becoming the new orthodoxy, with well-paid journalists, right-wing think tanks and neo-liberal politicians all joining together in reactionary chorus.

A quote here from Reform, a grubby little outfit that claims to be “an independent think-tank whose mission is to set out a better way to deliver public services and economic prosperity”. That’s prosperity for a handful of the super-rich then, I guess. Reform says that “in order to put Britain’s economy on the right path, public spending cuts must be considered and traditionally ‘unthinkable’ areas such as the NHS and defence cannot be exempt from the discussion”.  Anyone who’s naïve enough to think that the Lib-Dems offer a progressive alternative to Labour or the Tories might like to note that Reform is launching its pre-Budget report with Vince Cable as the keynote speaker.

An even less subtle but equally grubby little outfit, the Taxpayers’ Alliance, is also calling for public spending cuts. The Taxpayers’ Alliance claims that there is “a very severe divide” opening up between public and private sectors, with state employees enjoying better pay, pensions and job security.

The bosses’ paper the Financial Times and the right-wing  Daily Telegraph are going out of their way to promote this view, as are many other newspapers. Tory Shadow Chancellor George Osborne is happy to provide the politics these rags are looking for. Osborne told the FT that the 1.1% a year expansion in public spending planned by Labour is not sustainable. He has threatened to renege on the (very poor) three year pay restraint deals forced through by Labour, and says the issue of ‘gold-plated’ public sector pensions will be swiftly addressed by a Tory Government. Eton and Oxford wasn’t it, George? Good to know you’re in touch with the concerns of ordinary people.

And what about Labour? Subdued murmurs of massive public spending cuts have been going on for a long while now – way before the multi-billion bail-out of the banks, even. However, the Government’s got so few people left who actually support them, they don’t necessarily want to drive away the few voters who doggedly cling on hoping for something better. The BBC suggests that spending cuts will be announced in a future comprehensive spending review, rather than in the forthcoming budget – and any spending review will presumably be delayed until after the European elections in June.

We’re already seeing the softening up attacks from Labour, though. When Brown calls for reform of MPs’  ‘gold plated pensions’ this sounds remarkably like step one towards Osborne’s wider attack on ‘gold plated pensions’ in the public sector. Brown’s hatred of decent public sector pensions is an open secret. And the budget may well include other attacks – an increase in National Insurance contributions, an increase in VAT, the reduction of tax relief on pension contributions and so on. Who gets clobbered by these things? Ordinary workers, obviously.

We’re left with a bit of a dilemma then. One way forward for trade unionists is to accept that all we can do is tail Labour. That means doing as little as possible while the Labour Government desperately flails about in its death throes, with union leaders trying hard to look the other way while the NHS gets privatised, the public sector as a whole is decimated, and all workers are made to pay the price for the bosses’ crisis. My belief is that our big unions like Unison and Unite have made far too many concessions so as not to embarrass Labour.

The other way is to fight back. The claimed divide between public and private sector workers is a completely false one – a fake argument designed to divide and rule. It’s in the interests of ALL workers that we have decent public services. It’s very obviously in the interests of all workers that all of us have jobs, fair pay, and a pension that won’t leave us destitute in old age. Workers have never got anything for free – the lesson of history is that we get what we fight for. We’re now facing the deepest recession since the 1930s. If we allow the ruling class to get away with it, our side will pay a very heavy price. The need for militant trade union organisation has never been clearer.


Hospital Chaplains: Doing a good job

April 8, 2009

Yesterday the National Secular Society demanded an end to the NHS funding of hospital chaplains. Coverage from the National Secular Society website is  here. There’s been a fair bit of press coverage on this, and the issue has also sparked debate within Unite.

I’ve been an atheist for the whole of my adult life. However, I think the National Secular Society has got it wrong on this one. It’s absolutely reasonable to expect district nurses to have enough respect for their patients that they don’t go around forcing prayer cards on them. Actually, it’s equally reasonable to respect the wishes of patients who choose to seek support from hospital chaplains.

As a senior trade unionist, I represent hospital chaplains. Many of them are members of Unite, and many are active trade unionists. Hospital chaplains are NHS workers – employed by the NHS on standard NHS terms and conditions. They’re subject to the same pressures as any other NHS worker. They’re multi-faith – hospital chaplains are drawn from most major faith groups in the UK. Their job isn’t to proselytise. They’re there to provide spiritual and pastoral care to patients and patients’ families. My consistent experience has been that they do so in an open and generous way, with no question of quizzing people about their faith or trying to convert them to a particular religion.

At times I’ve worked closely with hospital chaplains in my role as a speech and language therapist. I worked for a few years on a neonatal unit, with premature or seriously ill babies. I saw for myself the care and support given by hospital chaplains to the families of critically ill babies, and the way their care continued for the families who lost their babies. We have a target driven NHS these days. There’s no time for nurses to sit and talk to the mother of a dying child, or to someone who is fearful of their own death, or to the wife who has just lost a cherished husband. Hospital chaplains can, and do, and do so with enormous skill and commitment. Their employment represents an important strand of humanity in an NHS that is under attack.

Hospital chaplains have been seen as a soft target for management cuts in recent years. They deserve the solidarity and support of trade unionists. I would be very sorry indeed if we lost hospital chaplains. Hospitals would be poorer places without them.


Solidarity with the Visteon Occupation

April 7, 2009

I was at an inspiring meeting in North London last night – a solidarity meeting with the Visteon workers who are in occupation now.

On Tuesday last week, over 500 Visteon workers were sacked with a few minutes notice. They were told to clear their lockers and get out. Some of them had been employed there for more than 40 years. There was no warning, and no consultation. They were told there’s no money for redundancy pay, and they’ll get the statutory minimum. They didn’t even get their pay for the final week at work.

What did they do? At two of the three plants involved (Enfield and Belfast) they’ve gone into occupation.

Visteon was hived off by Ford back in 2000, but workers were told they were guaranteed Ford contracts for life. That would mean no compulsory redundancies. Instead, Ford is saying ‘Nothing to do with us’, while Visteon has simply dumped them. The workers are fighting for a settlement that treats them like human beings – either for the plants to stay open, or for a fair redundancy package.

There’s a jobs massacre going on – in construction, in finance, in manufacturing generally – and right at the sharp end of things, in car plants and in motor components plants like Visteon. Far too much of this is happening without a fightback.

That’s why it’s so brilliant to see the Visteon workers standing up for their right to be treated with respect, and sending out a message loud and clear, ‘Workers fight back’.

It was a privilege to hear the Visteon workers yesterday talking about their fight. They spoke of their absolute determination to keep going, of the practical problems of sleeping in shifts in a building with no heating and limited washing facilities, and of the confidence that widespread solidarity has given them.

The stakes are very high here. The convenor and deputy convenor were threatened with two year jail sentences at the High Court yesterday. There’s now a brief stalemate while talks take place. What a disgrace that we have a Government that allows workers to be sacked with a few minutes notice, but has no problem with those same workers being jailed for defending their jobs.

Check out the  video, and download the collection sheet. This is a fight that has to win. The job of trade unionists and socialists is to deliver the practical solidarity that can ensure that victory.