Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Dear Yvette Cooper

Dear Yvette,

Re: Leadership of the Labour Party

I read extracts of your interview with the Indy with some interest as, I think it's fair to say, your platform for Labour leadership is considered the 'lightest' among the contenders so far. No one is in any doubt what Liz Kendall stands for. Ditto Jeremy Corbyn. And last night on Newsnight, Andy finally put more flesh on the bones of his National Care Service idea. I wouldn't be so presumptuous to say he followed my advice, but it's stark that whereas your three opponents have defined themselves you are yet to do so. And that's a shame, because some big ideas are getting floated in the leadership election this time round, and you should be meeting like with like. If you win on the basis of being the least offensive to everyone you will be storing up future legitimation problems for your leadership.

Today's Indy interview goes a little bit of the way in setting out what you believe, but nowhere near far enough. Let's talk about Jeremy, seeing as everyone else is. You say:
Inevitably there is frustration and anger at the prospect of five more years of Tory government. It is really important we channel that anger into defeating the Tories. It is no use just shouting from the sidelines. It is no use being angry about the world. We have got to change the world.

I don’t think we want to go back to the 1980s and just be a protest movement ... Today’s four and five year-olds could have to spend their entire childhood under a Tory government if we are not determined and ready to win again.
That message isn't going to win over many Jez supporters now, especially when when the grating and the dud of the party's parliamentary/spad/journo establishment have articulated it in spectacularly panicky terms. And not being daft, you know this too. The only reasonable conclusion one can infer is that you're explicitly pitching for Liz's second preferences. Yet, as we know from Labour First's open letter to Progress, it seems some Liz supporters are bent on not lending their second preferences to either you or Andy. You've got to win them over rather than posing as a steady-as-she-goes default choice.

You do have some advantages here. From what I can gather, most Liz supporters see themselves as forward-thinking progressives. Tony Blair's silliness about the future being the only comfort zone is so much gibberish to some, but it chimes with how Blairites view their tendency. The left and the centre - which includes you and Andy - are yesterday's people. You fight shy of what they perceive as the real world and you offer little in the way of confronting and managing it in pursuit of economic efficiency and social justice, as they like to put it. Liz's platform, for instance, recommends itself to technocratic minds. Her plan to decentralise power, for example, is a good one that would keep the wonks and the geeks very happy. Her politics, however, have some very serious weaknesses that you do not share. There are breaches your campaign can step into.

The largest of these is 'the future'. In your Indy interview, you discuss the opportunities presented by Green industries and you rightly castigate the Tories for treating it them as green crap. Good. But you need to go further. If the future is to see a renaissance of British manufacturing you have to bang the drum hard for onshore and offshore wind, wave power, solar power and, to make sure it's Team Yvette that's future-tinged, perhaps say a few words about nuclear fusion research. You also have to set your face against fracking for pretty obvious reasons: more carbon emissions, landscape and property blight, overstated claims of a jobs bonanza. A plurality of the public are opposed, and not a few of them live in seats we need to win back in 2020. The Tories have left an open goal on this one, particularly as they favour fracking for short-termist reasons.

You are also the only candidate consistently talking about science, the digital revolution, and preparing the economy for jobs that don't even exist yet. As I'm sure you know, one of the biggest policy challenges coming is a new wave of automation. These could render redundant a number of low skilled, low waged, labour intensive jobs. More importantly it could sound the death knell for a great many office-based jobs too. As Paul Mason points out in his new book dealing with this topic (among other things), business as a whole is laying off investing in this way for the moment. When the market is more buoyant and the big savings become clearer, it's going to happen. This can be dealt with in one of two ways. Pretend it doesn't exist and hope that these jobs are replaced like-for-like by the expansion of other industries. That seems to be the Tories' course and, as the 1980s and the so-called "jobs miracle" since 2012/13 tells us, that is simply not going to happen. Or some far sighted leadership can be shown now, and you're in the best position to do this. Be warned though, it might involve thinking some properly unthinkable thoughts.

By stealing a march on these things you won't just win over Liz supporters; there are floating Andy and - yes - Jeremy supporters who might be inspired by what you have to say. You can show the Labour selectorate that you know what's coming and you're the only one who's thinking about those challenges. It also puts the Tories on the back foot because of their short sighted and reckless approach to managing the economy.

Look, my politics differ a lot from yours. However, I recognise that you have a lot of experience, have the thick skin a leader needs, and these qualities commend you both to the position of the Leader of the Opposition and Prime Minister. You will not get to see either of those offices unless you start distinguishing yourself from the others, and certainly not by trash-talking Jeremy. What's it to be?

Yours sincerely,


Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Relax, There Is No Labour Meltdown

Another day, another bout of mischief making. In today's Indy we learn that things aren't looking too rosy for Labour. In a specially commissioned poll, it "shows party is now even 'less electable' than under Ed Miliband. Blimey, that doesn't bode well for 2020. They go on:
... voters think Labour has gone backwards since its crushing defeat under Ed Miliband. Only 24 per cent of people believe the party is more electable than it was in May, while 76 per cent say it is less electable.
The article also pours scorn on the idea of a core vote strategy as the route to electoral success. Drawing on Fabian research, adding up all the Green and LibDem voters to Labour's total still leaves the party trailing the Tories in the marginals.

Two points are worthwhile noting. Firstly, who is arguing for a targeting of Green and LibDem voters? True, some - but by no means all - in Camp Corbyn think Labour can win an election without having to bend over to attract Tory-leaning swing voters. Yet their analysis is more complex than the simplistic guff regurgitated here. They observe that to win back in Scotland, where the SNP are posing as an anti-austerity party; to see off UKIP - who ate into Labour's vote in 'safe' and swing seats; to win back Greens whose vote disproportionately hit Labour's and allowed the Tories to sneak through in a number of places; and to mobilise the missing millions who sat the election out, Labour has to offer something other than a colourless, technocratic pitch. Where it comes to Tory voters, some can be won on the merits of a platform offering a fairer, more secure capitalism and an end to austerity's dog-eat-dogism. A point made by Matthew d'Ancona, and emphasised in a missive from CCHQ last week telling Tory MPs and officials to knock off promoting Corbyn as it could shift politics to the left.

As it happens, I think pinning your electoral hopes on a coalition involving large numbers of abstaining voters. They are no more on the left than people who do vote, and their reasons for not particpating are - again - quite complex. The unavoidable road back to power takes us through lands populated by Tory voters who can be persuaded to vote Labour again. This however is not captured in the Fabian research because the question it's trying to answer is based on a false premise. Again, so there is no uncertainty, no one thinks we can win by cobbling together a coalition of Green and LibDem voters.

A lesson that the Indy could do with learning when it next commissions a poll. So 76% of people think Labour are less electable now than three months ago. Colour me shocked. In case their editorial office hadn't noticed, Labour doesn't have a leader and therefore the results uncovered are utterly meaningless. Most party members I know would conclude, right now, that Labour is unelectable on this measure alone. That's before you factor in the almighty row caused by the caretaker stepping outside of her remit, and the leadership debate's forays into the gutter. Meanwhile, in actual elections taking place every week in local authority by-elections, the results can hardly be described as a meltdown.

Once again, it needs reiterating that the press - even The Indy - don't have Labour's best interests at heart. Some are overtly striving for a Die Linke/SPD-style split, ensuring the permanent marginalisation of the centre left; and others will contribute to the narrative because it generates clicks and coverage at an otherwise dull and sedate time of year. And some are prepared to make themselves look quite stupid in the process.

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Jeremy Corbyn and Hard Left "Infiltration"

The press are not neutral arbiters when it comes to the Labour leadership contest. If they can use the debates between party members as a way of deepening divisions in the party, they will. At the forefront of these attempts is the so-called quality "paper of record" The Times, which of late is transforming itself into a straight propaganda sheet. Earlier this week, a fairly innocuous piece by Charles Falconer setting out his support for Andy Burnham was spiked with the headline "Women are not tough enough to lead Labour". It was misleading bollocks as he said nothing of the sort. Nevertheless, it had the desired effect. The 'Burnham is sexist' meme got a lift before, the day after, The Times issued their mea culpa.

And now they're at it again. The front page legend goes "Hard left plot to infiltrate Labour race", with the subby "Harman urged to halt leadership vote". It reads "140,000 new activists are projected to have joined ... with many signing up to back the hard left candidate". And "The Communist Party of Great Britain has called on supporters to join and back Corbyn as part of its revolutionary "strategy"". Then we we "Labour MPs say" their CLPs are being flooded with lefties (of course, these sources go unattributed). Let's unpack some of this.

First off, taking my very old friends the cpgb as evidence of any movement at all is the thinnest of thin gruels. Here's a 30-strong collective who've spent over three decades peddling their politics to little effect. They've also participated in practically every left regroupment project going, managing to alienate virtually everyone they've ever come into contact with. By far left standards, that's some feat. The Times also goes on to say that some TUSC candidates have also signed up. That may be the case, but some proof would be nice. Furthermore, the two main forces on the far left - the rape cover-uppers in the SWP, and my increasingly stop-the-world-we-want-ti-get-off erstwhile comrades in the Socialist Party are standing aloof from what's going on. Any real political movement of tens of thousands of politicised people is a real risk to their coherence as organisations. There's that and the fact the organised "hard left" outside of Labour would be hard-pressed to muster 6,000-7,000 members and supporters. The numbers we're talking about dwarf that pretty pitiful figure.

On that flood of new members, it says a great deal about the mindset of The Times and the briefers quoted. They cannot grasp that real people have all kinds of views, and that some might be attracted to a party when a menu of different options are unveiled. They cannot conceive how anyone would join Labour of their own volition to support a candidate without some plot or shadowy clique behind the scenes manipulating things. I can only speak for my CLP, but since the start of 2015 about 100 people have joined sturdy old Stoke Central and 70 of them signed up after the election. From those that have come to meetings, most are not there just to vote in the leadership contest. They've joined because they want Labour to win nationally against a cruel and stupid government. Some of these are Jeremy Corbyn supporters, but by far and away the most important - and numerous - contingent of that constituency are established members. If the doomsayers want either Andy, Yvette, or even Liz to win they need to shut up and try and understand where the Jez supporters are coming from.

Half-way in we get to John Mann MP, the one "urging" the suspension of the Labour leadership contest. Acting as the party's cut-price Simon Danczuk while he is temporarily indisposed, he says it's "becoming a farce" as long-standing members are getting "trumped" by people who don't care about the Labour Party. Too right, John. We can't let any old any old swamping the members, can we? Except, according to this piece John penned for Progress, he'd go even wider and let anyone choose the party's parliamentary candidates, including - presumably - "people who have opposed the Labour Party and want to break it up". What a tool.

Of course, John - and also-quoted Labour donor/David Miliband groupie Assem Allam and Lord John Hutton - are being useful idiots for Conservative/Murdoch ambitions. They've seen Scotland, they've seen how it is possible to completely rout the party in its traditional core areas. And they want to repeat the same in England and Wales. Their inspiration here is German politics, how the left is split between Die Linke and the SPD. The former contains the radical, anti-austerity elements and the latter the so-called moderates. In practice where national politics are concerned, it has doomed the former to perpetual opposition and the latter to shoring up Angela Merkel. It would suit Murdoch and the Tories if such a scenario could be imposed on British politics as it makes the possibility of the centre left ever forming a government again incredibly unlikely. If Labour MPs and other senior figures want to avoid this, they'd do well to stop fanning hysterical attacks on Corbyn, they'd do well not to give the Murdoch press and its Express, Telegraph, and Mail allies reasons to put the boot in. Because they're not only - yes - scabbing on the party, they're putting their own careers on the line too.

Saturday, 25 July 2015

What I've Been Reading Recently

Nicking this idea off Mark Carrigan, here's what I've read these last few months.

The Enigma of Capital by David Harvey
The Cornish Trilogy by Robertson Davies
Talcott Parsons: Theorist of Modernity by Roland Robertson and Bryan S Turner (eds)
Sperm Wars by Robin Baker
On the Steel Breeze by Alastair Reynolds
Prostitution and Feminism: Toward a Politics of Feeling by Maggie O'Neill
The Illuminatus! Trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson
Joining Political Organisations by Laura Morales
Voters and Voting by Jocelyn Evans
Look Who's Back by Timur Vermes
Krushchev's Russia by Edward Crankshaw
Poseidon's Wake by Alastair Reynolds
The Cambridge Companion to Marx by Terrell Carver (ed.)
American Pastoral by Philip Roth
Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell
Preparing for Power by the Revolutionary Communist Party

Friday, 24 July 2015

Paul Mason Debates Post-Capitalism

Paul Mason's coming book on post-capitalism sounds fascinating. Building on Yann Moulier Bouteng's brilliant Cognitive Capitalism (itself very heavily influenced by Toni Negri's autonomism and turn to empire), Paul is looking at how the antagonism central to global capitalism - between capital and labour - has in its suppression led to a proliferation of contradictions and cracks in the system that allow for glimpses of a possible world to come. As Marx observed all those years ago, the beginnings of the new grows in the womb of the old.

Here's an extract from a debate in front of a Graun audience a couple of nights ago. There might be more postings on this theme over the next week.

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Remembering Charlie

Sadly, our feline comrade left us today. What can I say about Charlie? In the 15 years he shared our lives he terrorised our ankles, wrecked a few sofa covers, and smothered us in a welter of ceaseless purring. Our Charlie, sometimes affectionately known as 'monkey' and 'shitbird' among other epithets not suitable for a family-friendly blog, was always a lively presence. In fact, he's one reason I began blogging. Many moons ago he too toyed with the idea of writing a blog - Charlie was to concentrate on the frivolous, nonsensical stuff while Gerald, his tail (don't ask), was going to weigh in on heavy duty political issues. However, as Charlie and Gerald had certain limitations, such as lack of opposable thumbs and facility for language, we had to step in and make their dream real.

The house doesn't feel the same without him, but he'll always be here. 20 years from now his cat hairs will still be turning up.

Goodbye Charlie. We're going to miss you very much.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Some Advice for Andy and Yvette

In a world that gave us Milifandom, should we be shocked that Jezmania has become a thing, that Camp Corbyn has powered ahead in YouGov's poll of Labour members? Well, some of us are. And by 'us' I mean sections of the Parliamentary Labour Party and self-styled sensible people. You've had ex-Jim Murphy advisor John Mcternan castigate Jez supporters as "morons", to which Margaret Beckett - one of Jeremy's PLP "enablers" - labelled herself as such for allowing him on the ballot paper. That's not likely to go down well in Derby South CLP, who just so happened to nominate Jeremy too. And this morning we've had Tony Blair chime in with yet another of his frequent "infrequent" interventions. Out came the same old on the centre ground showing scant awareness that its time as a meaningful filter for understanding politics is long gone, and warnings about comfort zones and the like. All ammo for the Corbyn tommy gun, if you ask me.

Yes, there are palpable senses of panic and most of it emanates from the space around Liz Kendall. After all, it wasn't supposed to be like this. She was the "fresh face" no one had heard of who'd take the party back to the best of New Labour and start winning again. Her lot definitely was not to languish in fourth place and act as a strange repellent pushing members and supporters to her polar opposite. In the camps of Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper there isn't panic, but there is some unease. Both can find solace in their strong CLP showings (73 and 62 to Jeremy's 76 nominations), but if either are to be leader they need to start upping the game. It's Corbyn, not Kendall that has set down the challenge and only by responding to it can they win. They can do this in a number of ways. Whether they do or not is up to them.

1) The attacks on Jeremy from friends of Liz are completely and utterly counter-productive. They are hectoring, patronising, and arrogant. You might have thought a campaign placed in distant last should show humility as it talks about winning elections. This, however, is their groove now. Falling short of one of the other two 'mainstream' candidates keeling over, they cannot get back into it. Liz is toast. However, it would be a massive error on the parts of teams Andy and Yvette to start taking this rhetoric on as the polls approach. Members have heard this argument for over 20 years. Negative and lesser evil campaigning can have a place, but it need not be from the mouths of Burnham and Cooper. What they need to do is not just campaign in a comradely way, but set out their stalls.

2. Whatever you think of Liz Kendall's politics, you know where she stands. But as her diminishing machine is jammed on relentless negativity, there's an opportunity here for Andy and Yvette. Believe it or not, there are some good things in Liz's platform. Workers on company boards, big wage rises for the care industry, and a reversal of attacks on trade unions immediately spring to mind. She's left these in her bag while she berates the membership with a megaphone. Why not pinch them?

3. Rather than being this contest's Mr Angry, Jeremy today set out a big policy announcement on tax, the economy, and public spending. These are worth looking at in some detail. There's a call for a national infrastructure investment bank and a big clampdown on tax evasion and avoidance. One can quibble about the specifics, but in the grand scheme of things these aren't particularly "left wing". Actually, in the context of economic management, by using efficient tax collection to fund infrastructure, Jez is setting out a plan for a fairer and, if you want to be technocratic about it, more rational capitalism. His route to battling the Tories over economic competence is by setting out a different, superior plan for the economy. Andy and Yvette would be wise to take a similar route - the Tories will always out-fight Labour when we fight battles on the grounds of their choosing.

4. Andy and Yvette don't need to go left or right, they need to go big. Take a leaf out of Jez's book and be bold. Andy has long talked about the need for a National Care Service. Good. Let's hear more about it. And perhaps have a think about how it can be provided so old folk don't have to sell their homes to fund it. Yvette has mentioned in passing a National Child Care Service. Brilliant, talk about it some more. It might even be one of those "aspirational" policies middle class parents are going to quite like too.

5. "Our only comfort zone should be the future" were words uttered at today's Progress audience with his Royal Blairness. Meaningless guff, or is it? As it happens, he does have a point. You might say this is a roundabout way of speaking about hope. The lead in to 1997's crushing victory allowed Labour to accumulate about it all kinds of hopes and dreams. If you look at that year's manifesto, it was very much a safety-first document. No gaskets were in danger of blowing. All Blair projected was freshness and the promise of an alternative at a moment when any alternative would do. The next leader has to do better than that, and of Yvette and Andy it's Yvette whose marketed her campaign as the most future-facing. She has said a few words about hi-tech jobs and occupations that haven't even been invented yet, but much more needs to be done. Everyone knows the biggest future challenge is climate change mitigation and renewable power - much more needs saying here, especially as - once again - the Tories are burnishing their green credentials by undercutting support for green industries. A few words against fracking would be immensely helpful too. But also, there is a big, big policy challenge on the way: the coming wave of automation is set to make large number of low and middle income jobs redundant and their like-for-like replacement by new jobs unlikely. Showing a bit of leadership now on a coming problem will pay dividends later on.

6. On business, both Andy and Yvette would do well to specify that being pro-business doesn't mean they're going to bend over backwards for them, which is usually the understanding of Labour members from all wings of the party. For example, Jeremy's tax and economy pitch is pro-business in the sense British capitalism sans austerity and coupled with infrastructural spending would do far more for productivity and profitability than corporation tax cuts. They need to have a clear focus on security for everyone, not just because it's the right thing to do, it's the politically smart thing to do, and is ultimately in the long-range interests of business. The dog-eat-dog capitalism of the Tories stymies business and business opportunities, despite the rhetoric, and can have the perverse consequence of securing further terms in power.

7. Andy and Yvette need a theme, or themes. We know they've both been round the block. Within the terms of mainstream politics, they both have potential to be good leaders of the opposition and potential prime ministers. But why are they in the race? What have they got that makes them the better choice over each other, and Jeremy and Liz? Because of Andy's flip-floppery this is a bit of an easier ask for Yvette. What the campaign needs is not more "passion" but more ideas. If either want to win, they're going to have to start talking about them - now.

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Understanding Labour's Abstentions

I'm going to have a stab at understanding the gyrations of leadership candidates in recent days around the Welfare Reform Bill and how only 48 Labour MPs voted against it. But because this is the internet a qualifier is necessary. Labour MPs last night should not have sat on their hands, they should have voted against. Not only is it wrong, it's ruinously stupid. And no one in "real life" is going to buy it. Have a think, is there anyone settling down to watch a news bulletin later thinking "nice one Labour. You finally get it and I'm going to vote for you"; or are those same people more likely to say "what a spineless shower"? Yes, the electorate broadly likes the idea of social security recipients getting a kick or several, but that doesn't mean Labour is going to be rewarded for putting the boot in too. Illogical? Yes, but that's politics.

A good rule of playing the game in 2015 is if George Osborne lays a trap and erects a great neon sign that reads "this here is a trap", avoidance is probably the correct way to proceed. In this case, as Andrew Gwynne points out, the Tories had deliberately sugared the nasty pill with 'nice' things like more apprenticeships, help for troubled families, and cuts to social housing rents. Voting against the second reading of the bill means voting against those things too. But come on, that stance is pretty naive. Do you really think the Tories in the present climate are going to score points on cutting rents to people they've successfully painted as council estate detritus? Everything in the bill is overdetermined by cuts. That's what's being reported, that's what "normal" people are seeing. As with so many thing it's about perception, something that new MP Cat Smith gets. Furthermore, 22 Tory MPs also abstained - had the bulk of Labour not done so a morale-shaking defeat might have been inflicted on the government and spun them into crisis instead.

Moving to the leadership candidates, what's been happening here? There is some confusion as the Welfare Reform Bill doesn't deal with the issue of tax credits, which three of the four clearly opposed. Most of the ire, however, has been reserved for Andy Burnham. If his leadership campaign can be distinguished by one thing, it's not passion: it's flip-floppery. How many U-turns and contradictions can one man perform? We've had "Labour spent too much, but I'm not going to apologise for new schools, hospitals, etc.". We've heard him praise the 2015 manifesto as the best one he's ever stood on, only to have him criticise it in hustings as too narrow. He said on Sunday that he'd be happy to have Jeremy Corbyn in his shadow cabinet, only to have it ruled out a few hours later. And then, after abstaining in last night's vote he writes "If I am elected leader in September, I am determined that Labour will fight this regressive Bill word by word, line by line."

To be fair to Andy in this instance, he did qualify that with "if the Government do not make major changes to protect working families, children and the disabled, then, under my Leadership, Labour will oppose this Bill with everything we’ve got". In other words, if the amendments Labour put down on the bill don't get through committee (they're very unlikely to) then Andy will lead his troops through the no lobby when it returns for passage into law. Once again, especially in the context of his less than smooth record, Andy should have paid attention to perceptions.

There is, however, a very good reason why the three abstainers um, abstained that is unrelated to the specifics of this issue. It comes down to party discipline. Whoever wins is going to have to manage the party and ensure the PLP act in a (relatively) disciplined fashion. There are a number of ways this ongoing process can be accomplished, such as balancing out different trends and factions in the shadow cabinet. Ed Miliband, for instance, packed his first shadcab with Blairites not because he was a Blairite but because they were a weighty contingent in the parliamentary party. They had backed his brother by a wide margin and had to be accommodated. As the parliament wore on they were gradually whittled away and replaced by Milipeople. It helped ensure a high degree of party unity and also deferred the expression of divisions to now. An essential tool of management, the incoming leader is going to need to appeal to loyalty to the office and loyalty to the party. Do not underestimate how powerful this is - MPs who abstained last night aren't the only ones who've abided by the whip to do less-than-palatable things. However, for any leader to call on this resource they have to show respect for it themselves. Suppose Andy or Yvette as the two favourites win. They are likely to be victorious off the back of second preference votes and will face a PLP where approximately two thirds didn't nominate them. They are going to have to call on that party loyalty at some point, but it would be much harder for them to do so if they rebelled against the party whip on this occasion. Some readers are going to find this unprincipled behaviour, but it's par the course for parliamentary and party manoeuvres. Think back to Iain Duncan Smith in his time as one of John Major's 'bastards'. How did repeated disloyalty and back bench shenanigan-stirring work out for him when he was leader?

Once again, because it's the internet, this isn't a soft soaping of would-be leaders that excuses their abstention on a crucial political issue but an attempt at understanding why some key political actors do what they do. Understanding, after all, is the route to wisdom.

Why Are the ATL Raiding Other Unions?

I've always found it a bit weird that teaching presently has four trade unions vying to represent it: the NASUWT, NUT, ATL, and Voice. However, four may very soon become three as "non-formal" talks are taking place between the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (124,000 members) and the National Union of Teachers (333,000 members). Good. Anything reducing competition between unions maximises the hand of the employee in negotiation with the employer and should be welcomed by all labour movement people. That isn't to say everything is bright and cheerful. Gossip about some very questionable behaviour on the part of the ATL is doing the rounds in organising circles and what's going on is disturbing. It's something NUT and ATL members might be interested in knowing about.

I'll ask readers to cast their eyes across the Irish Sea to the Emerald Isle. Here it would seem that the ATL have been launching recruitment raids on my own union, the University and College Union. This goes back several years. In November 2008, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions heard a complaint made by UCU against the ATL. That complaint accused the latter of recruiting workers in the Further Education sector contrary to the ICTU's constitution. The UCU and its predecessor union had long been recognised by the employers for the purposes of collective bargaining. The Congress's constitution also stipulates that each of its affiliates have a protected sphere of influence from which they may recruit. The UCU's is HE and FE teaching/lecturing and management staff, the ATL's school teachers. As part of the complaint, UCU alleged that they had seen a recruitment email sent from an ATL organiser to UCU members that suggested they also had collective bargaining rights - which was untrue. Furthermore these and other antics came at a time the UCU in Northern Ireland was involved in a dispute with the employers. Basically, what the ATL are accused of doing is akin to Unite recruiters turning up on Unison picket lines and signing them up. It's atrocious behaviour. Some might characterise it as a little bit scabby.

In their reply to the committee, the ATL affirmed the unions' respective spheres of influence and accepted they had no recognition rights in FE in Northern Ireland. As for the email, this was sent because the ATL had entered into an arrangement with another union, the Association of Managers in Education (AMiE) to provide their Ulster members representational services. Of course, said email was "sent in error". In their findings, the ICTU disputes committee found in favour of the UCU and asked the ATL to write to any member recruited from this operation to advise them the union has no bargaining rights in the sector, and the right one to join is the UCU. It also recommended ATL review its procedures to ensure something like this didn't happen again.

Done and dusted? Apparently not. In February this year both unions were back at the disputes committee. This time the ATL were accused of explicitly running a recruitment campaign in FE contrary to the previous findings. Even more damaging, they undermined the UCU by misrepresenting the union's position on the "Deane payment": i.e. FE lecturing pay scales in Northern Ireland. This misrepresentation involved making false claims in their publications inferring that the UCU blocked pay rises for staff in management grades. This is despite ATL (and the employers they represent) having sight of correspondence authored by a government official stating that management grades did not attract a pay increase because they were not included in the employers’ business case. FE pay in N.I. is subject to the government's hard line on public sector pay restraint and thus UCU does not enjoy free collective bargaining over pay in any true sense.

Worse still, since the 2008 ruling ATL subsequently embarked on a poaching assault on UCU’s higher education membership. Once again this is a sector for which the ATL has no recognition rights. The ATL poached members in Stranmillis teacher training college directly from the UCU while the union was involved in a UK-wide pay dispute.

The ATL for their part disputed the demarcation established by the previous disputes committee. In 2011 they had taken over AMiE and argue they had assumed their representational rights, up to and including collective bargaining, in FE. They also denied knowledge of the dispute at Stranmillis but conceded they should not have begun recruiting. They also deny they set out to undermine the UCU's position.

This is where it starts to get interesting. The Congress committee only in part accepted the ATL's acquisition of representational rights. It held that the union now possesses rights on behalf of staff on 'director grades' but not for the sector as a whole. They remain the province of the UCU. It also found it should not have accepted members from the UCU during the course of a dispute. Therefore the ATL should contact these people and direct them back to the appropriate union and, again, address its processes and procedures.

In official correspondence I've seen with the ICTU dated 9th June, the ATL's Northern Ireland director had this to say in response to the findings:
Dear Patricia,

Thank your [sic] for your letter of 3rd June. I am writing in response on behalf of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (inclusive of our leadership section, the Association of Managers in Education). As set out in our earlier letter of 15th May, ATL neither accepts nor is willing to implement the findings of the Disputes Committee 01/15 report. The report has, for us, little traction in the real world and would be injurious to the interests of our union.

ATL recognises that this may put in question its continued membership of ICTU. As such, I should advise that ATL will cease our membership with the ICTU with immediate effect and that ATL personnel and representatives will withdraw from all Congress representative bodies and committees. [Emphasis mine]

It is with regret that we are obliged to take this action. It is, nonetheless, inevitable and unavoidable in the circumstances.

Yours Fraternally,

Mark Langhammer
Director, ATL, Northern Ireland
By way of a summary then, the ATL were dragged twice to the highest trade union body in Ireland to undergo an adjudication process after attempts at mediation and resolution failed. On the second of these occasions, ATL accepts it shouldn't have undertaken a recruitment raid on UCU members during a dispute, but has flicked ICTU the Vs and has pledged to keep hold of them. More than that, it no longer recognises the authority of the Congress to decide what demarcation boundaries there are, nor the established arrangements from which staff in that sector - be they UCU, newly minted ATL, or non-union - benefit from.

What then is going on here? It is my understanding that there has been some bad blood between Mark Langhammer of the ATL and the UCU. In 2012, the Northern Irish government commissioned this report into industrial relations at the North West Regional College based in Derry. This is something of a "super-college" with around 25,000 students. However, there were persistent tensions between the UCU and NWRC management, reflecting a general lack of trust between staff and bosses. The remit of the report was to investigate the college's culture and communication practices. It found that staff felt intimidated and were micromanaged by people on senior grades, and recommended a transformation of the culture whereby management shifted its attitude and they and the union jointly collaborated in joint fora and the like. Hardly "kick out the bosses and occupy the factory!" stuff.

However, in a statement put out shortly before the report's publication in February 2013, Langhammer (then with his AMiE hat on, representing the NWRC's directors) denounced it in a laughable press release. Here are some highlights:

"The issue is simple. It comes down to who should run the College? Should it be the governing body, through its management team? Or should it be the infantile left within a Luddite union stuck in the habits and mores of old style 1970’s bargaining?" [Author's emphasis]

"What the College has been faced with is an ongoing battery of engineered, manufactured, complaints and tribunals. What the North West public need to understand is that this is a concerted, determined, and irresponsible campaign of disruption by a backward thinking union led by the infantile left."

"His draft report is consequently one-sided, biased, inaccurate, runs well outside his terms of reference and is, in parts, potentially actionable. It gratuitously identifies individuals in a manner that can only cause them reputational damage."

"... the McConnell report is a “stitch up” - a “hatchet job” that has given the college union their ‘pound of flesh’ and can only encourage more of the same."

"I have direct and personal experience of the sort of frivolous, vexatious and malicious grievance-mongering generated as the stock-in-trade of the complaints factory of this college based union branch."

Were I a member of AMiE, I'd be embarrassed that the boss of my union would write something like this in an official capacity. The frothing antipathy Langhammer shows toward the UCU - albeit a local branch - does provide some context for their behaviour after the ICTU investigation. One might draw the conclusion that his petulance in "the interests of our union" is merely cover for a smash and grab on the UCU driven by vindictiveness and revenge.

I appreciate that as far as the UK goes, these days Northern Ireland is regarded as a backwater peripheral to "proper politics". Even Question Time hasn't bothered filming an episode there for the last two years. But that doesn't mean it's not without significance. What has happened is the equivalent of the ATL turning round to the TUC here and telling them to do one as it targets the membership of other unions in aggressive and - yes - scabby recruitment campaigns. So the question is where's the wider union in all this? Withdrawing from the ICTU is no little matter. It's not like a local branch getting in a huff with the local trades council and not bothering to send next year's affiliation cheque. The evidence suggests that ATL’s tactics in Northern Ireland are being used to test the efficacy of hostile strategies in boosting ATL’s membership. An experiment in the ends justifying the means. In April of this year the General Secretaries of Unison, GMB, and Unite had cause to author a joint letter to ATL general secretary Mary Bousted about her union's recruitment practices among school support staff - an area outside of their demarcation. The recruitment activity in Northern Ireland under Mark Langhammer’s watch is specifically referenced.

What the trade union movement needs to know is:

1. How long has Mary Bousted been aware of the situation in Northern Ireland?

2. Why she backs the actions taken by Langhammer (we can only assume she does).

3. Why the ATL's disaffiliation to the ICTU has not been put to the membership?

4. To what extent the raids on UCU members in Northern Ireland are known to ATL lay officers and activists in the province and the rest of the UK?

5. Is this isolated, or part of a smash 'n' grab recruitment model set to be rolled out elsewhere?

Of course, this is of direct import to the informal talks going on between the ATL and NUT. As the latter is known for being something of an activist union with a broad left-leaning membership, how are they going to view scabrous goings ons in Northern Ireland by the union they're in unity talks with? Not with unalloyed enthusiasm, I'm sure.

The ATL senior leadership has some very serious explaining to do.

Sunday, 19 July 2015

Defending Daniella Westbrook and Dr Christian Jessen

Celebs and dodgy photos, eh? The latest pair to succumb in this fashion are ex-Eastender Daniella Westbrook and the chunky, hunky Dr Christian Jessen of C4's Embarrassing Bodies. In case anyone missed the last two editions of the Daily Star Sunday, both have been caught somewhat in flagrante. Daniella apparently became infatuated with a man she met on Instagram and sent him some samples from her adults only collection. Dr Christian was similarly skewered. A sent a gent he met on Grindr a series of snaps that left very little to the imagination.

Some might say if you're a celeb and you're using this wonderful marvel of the digital age to hook up, then you get what you deserve really. I'm not so sure, however. From a moral viewpoint, this is not like the so-called "fappening" (ah, such wit) that released hundreds of intimate pictures of celebrities - the vast majority of whom were young women - after stealing them by hacking their accounts. The investigation into the theft hasn't turned up much so far, except the confiscation of a man's computer equipment in June. If anyone is eventually convicted for this that can look forward to doing a stretch - another hacker got 10 years for breaking into Mila Kunis's and Scarlett Johansson's account.

Nor is it the same as the revenge porn treatment recently meted out to TOWIE's Lauren Goodger and UKIP staffer Lizzy Vaid. Readers will recall the attempted slut-shaming of both these women after ex-partners released intimate films and photos of both. However, despite crimes being committed in both cases there have not been any arrests or prosecutions to date. In Lauren's case this might have something to do with her dating the culprit again.

Where Daniella and Dr Christian are concerned, neither set was stolen. But can they fall into the category of revenge porn? In the first case, the photos Daniella sent were apparently unsolicited. And - though not familiar with any dating app - I assume Dr Christian's pics were exchanged once a romantic word or two (or whatever passes as such in hook up culture) were exchanged in the ether. Yet there's something deeply uncomfortable about both. Salacious gossip is par the course for sleaze rags like The Star, but none of it is really in the public interest, but I've always found it pretty distasteful that the other party to this case - in Dr Christian's it's the would-be hooker-upper - emerges with their anonymity protected and probably a couple of K in cash.

Even worse is Daniella's case. The man concerned, one Alfie Southion, claimed she was sending 30 messages a day, some of which with intimate pictures and other apparently asking for sex. As he puts it, "When she started sending me naked pictures I couldn’t believe it. It was a bit sad and degrading. In the end I had to block her. To be honest she scared me a bit ... She didn’t seem in a good place, I think she needs help." So our Alfie believed that Daniella was suffering mental health problems and needed specialist assistance. So by way of rendering her aid he flogged the images and publicly slut-shamed her in the pages of a national daily, presumably in return for a few grand. What a loathsome, morally reprehensible creature.

Helpfully, The Star clarifies the law here as :
Individuals who publish explicit videos or images without consent and with intent to cause distress could face jail.

Under the new legislation, offenders will face up to two years in jail for sharing images on or offline without the subject’s permission.

The law defines revenge porn as “photographs or films which show people engaged in sexual activity or depicted in a sexual way or with their genitals exposed, where what is shown would not usually be seen in public”.

Newspapers are entitled to publish such images if they believe it to be in the public interest.
Basically, as far as the paper is concerned they can republish the photos because a) the public are interested and b) they're censored anyway. However, The Star are certainly in breach of the spirit of the legislation and can under a wide interpretation be considered to have broken it. It appears young Alfie and our friend from Grindr may have as they shared explicit images with a third party without permission. I do hope Daniella and Dr Christian make complaints to the police.

Was it unwise of our two celebrities to make and share pornographic images of themselves? Considering their position, probably. But ultimately that is immaterial. What they do with their phones and fiddly bits is up to them, and it's no one's place - not hypocritical rags, not opportunists on the make - to breach their trust and use sex imagery to embarrass, traduce, and shame.