Friday, April 23, 2004

A Labour hack writes...

Thanks for saying you enjoy the blog (but then you would, you pathetic new labour weasel)

and here's why he wrote...

"If only we'd known"...

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Thursday, April 22, 2004

This story will make you like Geoff Hoon a little more.

Honestly, it will.

Also- Recess Monkey is a good read for those of us who tend to treat parliament with exagerated respect- and he also asks a question on his links page to which the answer is undoubtedly yes, no matter what the Guardian says.

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Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Referenda- Return to sender?

Well, I'm glad I didn't say anything about the likelihood of a referendum on an EU Constitution because I would have scoffed at the likelihood and made myself look like a right monkey.

At least it's not just me. According to the usually reliable Alice Miles (she of the vicious rumours about her pregnancy) in the Times, Number 10 aides were in the dark too. Who would have thunk it? A re-assertion of the primacy of politicians over advisers.

Ms Miles piece is pretty harsh on Mr Tony, but I suspect iher article has more than a couple of grains of truth.

So, to summarise- Why accept a referendum that you may very well lose?

First, because you think you might not have to put the question (other Eu countries might vote it down, and the negotiations might drag on).

Second, because it solves a more immediate political problem (Euro-elections? eeek!).

Third, because although it's not a salient issue for voters, it's a huge issue for the media (Is that Trevor Kavanagh whispering to Rupert again?).

Fourth, because it strengthens your negotiating hand if your partners are worried about the referendum failing. ("I tell you Jacques, clause 67 section b para iii could f**k the whole thing up for the UK")

and Fifth, because the issue of Europe needs to be settled for a decade.

A more positive interpretation is that Mr Tony knows the big row on Europe has to happen, and he wants to win it- but on his terms, not on the terms of the Euro-Sceptics. So he'll wait until The EU is log-jammed without reform, Euro economies have picked up, the EU itself is less fractious and expansion is seen to be a success. Also, he's convinced he can win. Well, I did say it was a positive interpretation.

For blog commentary, Anthony Wells is a very good read on this and should be read as a sensibly Tory antidote to my eulogies for Mr T.

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Tuesday, April 20, 2004

More on the Unions

Nick at 4Glengate has posted a comprehensive response to my post on trade unionism last week. I am usually loathe to get into long winded Blog arguments (They bore me when I read them elsewhere, and the only exception here is that I'm the author- and I'm not that good a writer).

As you might guess from the title of this post, I'm about to make an exception. 4Glengate is a much more left wing site than mine, is frequently based on Trade Union campaigning and Nicks post is articulate and interesting. So it deserves a considered response.

The first thing I want to say is that I think Nick has written a much more devastating indictment of British Unions than I could. He writes it from the left, of course, but even so, can you fail to read the following paragraphs and not wonder why anyone would join a union?

"The (Employment rights legislation- designed to help Unions organise in the workplace) legislation is as likely to be invoked by bosses confident of being able to defeat a currently-recognised union as it is by a union seeking to win a deal in an unorganised workplace. The tiny number of cases being pursued by the unions demonstrates what activists argued at the time - the legislation was basically irrelevant to the task of building union organisation in private sector workplaces, because what's needed to do that is evidence that joining the union will improve your job security, your pay and your conditions. Currently, unions are in no position to demonstrate that, and so the legal framework is no use to them."

Bold is mine. I'd point out that Nick can hardly blame the Governments legal framework for failing Unions and then point out in the next paragraph that "an even harsher legal framework" doesn't prevent union growth in other countries.

Nick's point is that what is needed is on the ground organisation with the focus on supporting workers in low paid jobs help themselves. I wouldn't disagree at all. His point brings to my mind John L Lewis and the UAW. I'm sure Nick has other examples.

Nick sets out 2 reasons why Unions are right to focus so heavily on the Public Sector

1. Pay and conditions of members. "(contracted out workers) can expect to work harder for less money, but they'll have richer bosses shouting at them than they're used to. They'll also probably not have a pension scheme any more."
2. Preservation of the service: "almost without fail, privatised public services offer poorer services but at higher cost than they would have been expected to had they remained in the public sector"

Of course a Trade Union should be fighting for the interests of its members. My point is that the problem comes where those members are disproportionately Public Sector employees, as it means the battles unions will fight are disproportionately against the government compared to other employers. Surely this is just obvious? All other things being equal there should be roughly three times as many private sector trade unionists as public sector. That should presumably mean three times as many disputes with Private sector employers. (Unless you want to claim that public sector bosses are worse employers than the private sector).

The next point, which I didn't stress in my original article is that even within this public /private divide, union representation is skewed. Scroll down to table 3 in this chart. In what segment of the population is Union representation highest? Public Sector professionals- at 73%. Put it this way, if you work in a council planning office, you are more than twice as likely to be a union member than if you work in a factory as a machine operative. The reforms the government propose for public sector working conditions are relatively minor (compared, say, to what happened to FE lecturers under the Tories) yet they have created a union storm.

So my question remains- Isn't the level of concern about the relatively modest reforms proposed by the Government distorting the real interests of Trade Unionism, which is presumably in representing all working men and women, not just the subset of workers in the public sector- amongst whom, Unions represent the professionals most?

Before anyone gets mad at me, this is a plain fact. Trade Union membership is highest amongst Public Sector professionals with a lot of service.

I think Nick's second point is plain empirically wrong. I just don't hear any public clamour for the re-nationalisation of BT, British Gas, electricity companies, the water companies or BAA.

The second part of Nick's article is focussed on Union organisation. He points out that from the Left point of view; the history of PCS is that of a popular left trying to take over a bureaucratic led union- and finally succeeding.

OK, even if we buy that, we're still talking about an 11% turnout. 11%. On that kind of turnout a small group of committed organised activists does make a difference. Or does Nick think that the majority of PCS members are supporters of the Socialist Party, SWP, Scottish Socialist Party and other Trotskyite groups that make up the Left Unity ticket?

Union turnouts across the board are similarly poor. T&G NEC elections- turnout of 10% or less is the norm. GMB GenSec election? 90k turnout, 700k members. About the only thing for which turnouts creep to 20% is closely contested GS elections. It's just easy for small, committed groups to have an influence out of proportion to their membership.

My problem with Prentis, Woodley, Curran et al is that they don't seem to have the courage of their convictions. In the environment they operate in there is a huge opportunity for them to stake out a new ground in Unionism (Possibly not for Prentis- who does exclusively represent Public Sector workers). What they seem to prefer doing is the approach Nick describes as throwing the odd speech to satiate the left.

Where Nick and I agree is that Unionism is dangerously moribund, despite apparent membership growth. He wants to see a left wing approach of opposing the Government, demanding more, more strikes, more direct action. I think Unions have to come to terms with the fact that their organisational model has left them dangerously out of touch everywhere except the public sector and need to redouble their efforts to develop a role in industries where the employees see them as irrelevant.

At the same time, I think that adopting Nick's approach to the public sector would lead to totally ineffective Government investment, huge dissatisfaction with services and the eventual election of a conservative government pledging to break up the vested interests and use the money saved for tax cuts. I believe that Union leaders need to be honest about that- and I believe they can win an argument with the hard left on the subject if they were only brave enough.

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Monday, April 19, 2004

I am a Grammar god.

Anyone who reads this site on a passing basis will have had to come to terms with my, erm, creative application of the rules of spelling, punctuation and verb modification. My relationship with the English language is a little like the Korean armed truce; we’ve been at war for decades, disaster is always impending, yet somehow fatalities are infrequent.

So trust me, gentle readers, when I tell you that this came as more of a surprise to me than it does to you.

Grammar God!
You are a GRAMMAR GOD!

If your mission in life is not already to
preserve the English tongue, it should be.
Congratulations and thank you!

How grammatically sound are you?
brought to you by Quizilla

All complaints to Quizilla, please.

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