[A-List] Ian Bell on New Labour bankruptcy
michael.keaney at mbs.fi
Tue Dec 10 02:44:08 MST 2002
Tony Blair may be celebrating his 'victory' over the firefighters but Ian
Bell argues that any savings the government make will be far outweighed by
what the debacle will cost them in terms of public support
The Sunday Herald, 8 December 2002
CONTEXT, as a politician might tell you, is everything. Nothing happens in
isolation. If you want to understand what is really going on in the world
you sometimes have to look at the connections between facts and events, even
if they seem random. Here's a few facts, in no particular order. Back in
November, the government granted an emergency loan of £650 million to the
failed nuclear operator British Energy. That loan is unlikely ever to be
repaid. In addition, Patricia Hewitt, the trade secretary, announced that
the taxpayer will be forking out between £150m and £200m a year for the next
decade -- and go on paying for 70 years more -- because no one bothered to
work out the cost of decommissioning nuclear plants. Or try this. Last week,
Richard Bowker, chairman of the Strategic Rail Authority, was forced to
admit that over £30 billion of public funds allocated under the government's
10-year transport plan have been used up eight years early. Cuts are on the
way; you can whistle for improved train services. Apparently there is a view
among network companies, Mr Bowker confessed, 'that government will write
the cheque for rail, whatever the size of the bill'.
And how's this? Alistair Darling, the transport secretary, has just agreed
to indemnify the wobbly consortium intent on privatising the Tube against
any extra costs they might face if legal action by Ken Livingstone, London's
mayor, happens to succeed. Analysts say this could cost £10m a month;
lawyers believe that tenacious Ken could drag things out for a very long
Spotted anything yet? Perhaps you have noticed, first, that the government
hasn't had much luck with our money lately. Perhaps you might also be
startled by how pricey modernisation and efficiency can become when someone
decides to butcher a public service.
And maybe you have done some quick comparisons between the stupendous sums
mentioned above and the £200m it would cost to give firefighters staged
increases amounting to 16%? As the Sex Pistols were wont to say, ever get
the feeling you've been had?
Tony Blair must hope not. The Prime Minister must also pray that an obedient
media chorus was right when it instantly declared the decision by the Fire
Brigades Union to deal with Acas, the conciliation service, as a victory for
the government. Downing Street could probably finesse the obvious contrast
between the £1bn set aside for a war with Iraq and the firefighters' claim,
but that does not answer Blair's big question: what do we really think?
The meaning of 'we' is tricky in these supposedly classless days. We voters?
We citizens? We trade unionists? Does the Prime Minister shape his strategy
according to his understanding of Labour supporters, the great, inchoate
British public, or a few hundred thousand people in key constituencies? Is
he worried about City attitudes to public service pay, or the possibility
that the unions might finally lose patience with his government and lock up
their cheque books?
Blair has a problem, whether he realises it or not. First, if it becomes
evident that the demand for 'modernisation' in the fire service is simply a
cynical excuse for cuts in jobs, fire stations and emergency cover, his
propaganda strategy will become fragile indeed.
To declare that the ability of hard-working squaddies and some ancient
engines to cope for a few days is proof of the need for reform -- Green
Goddesses all round, then? -- verges on the pathetic. It appears,
nevertheless, to be the best the government can do.
And will it actually profit Blair to whip the FBU? He may be strangely
besotted with the memory of Margaret Thatcher, but the sight of dedicated
workers crushed, insulted and treated with contempt by a Labour government
will lodge in many memories. Union attitudes will harden. Ordinary workers,
already unimpressed by Blair's fondness for the rich, dodgy and powerful,
will draw their own conclusions.
Another public service reformed to death? Another fascinating display of
double standards by ministers, assorted pundits and chaps from the CBI --
none of whom would get out of bed for £30,000 a year, trust me -- to add to
Blair should know the difference between battles and wars. A victory over
the FBU, however achieved, would alienate many more people than it would
please. A victory won with grubby smears and straightforward lies would
concentrate the minds of all those still desperate to believe that new
Labour is something it is not. Come the next election, when the war is
decided, Blair could have nothing left to depend on other than the matchless
incompetence of Iain Duncan Smith.
The government picked this fight; of that there is little remaining doubt. A
figure of 16% was being talked of as far back as the summer and ministers
did not demur. Their own research tells them that we actually need more, not
fewer, firefighters, and that there are significant risks attached to
cutting back on night cover. Despite their triumphalism, the politicians
also realise that the FBU's resort to Acas assuredly does not mean an end to
the dispute. Yet Blair's idea of negotiation still involves no sensible
negotiation whatever. Remind me: was that what he meant by the Third Way?
It is easy to argue, nevertheless, that a determined modern government
cannot lose when it confronts a trade union. From that fact you can, if you
like, extrapolate the conclusion that obduracy towards the FBU will, in the
posturing language of the Blairites, teach every union in Britain a lesson:
don't mess with us; you can't win so don't even try. Rational self-interest,
in short, will persuade groups of workers that it is better to accept lousy
wages than a kicking.
People who think this way have rarely had to contend with lousy wages. Never
having tasted militancy of any sort, they have never stopped to ask
themselves how workers respond when they believe they have nothing left to
lose. What is the endpoint of Blairite industrial relations theory, after
all? Simply that public sector unions will, forever, accept what they are
given? Simply that those who lack leverage will never exert themselves? Do
Blair and his friends simply mean -- do they really mean -- that working
people can and should, as a matter of policy, be cowed?
I'd call that a long shot. It suggests, first, that no one will notice the
sheer moral bankruptcy involved. It suggests, secondly, that having noticed
the bankruptcy, the brutality and the hypocrisy, several million people will
simply shrug their shoulders and give thanks for the working families tax
credit. That's quite a bet.
Given 55,000 firefighters, their families, friends and trade union
colleagues, I would suggest that Blair has just lost a minimum of half a
million votes. Given the implicit threat to all public sector unions posed
by ministers' handling of the dispute, I would guess that the political levy
on which Labour depends is now seriously at risk.
And given the conclusions many of us are capable of making about the
government's real attitudes and intentions, from PFI to tuition fees to the
bombing of Baghdad, I would guarantee, to put it no higher, that Mr Blair
has won precious few alternative supporters lately.
He will not be judged when the firefighters return to work. He will be
judged when the public understands the way the dispute has been handled.
Politicians succeed by forging relationships with the public, above all
relationships of trust. Blair has not been honest about the reasons for his
collision with the FBU, about the economics of the pay claim, about the
personalities involved, or about the real motive for demanding
modernisation. Why should he be trusted -- or elected?
If that's simple logic, trade unions can probably supply a proposition or
two of their own. If a Labour government is doing them more harm than good,
there is very little point in having a Labour government. If public service
union members can get no justice from Labour, there is no point in them
subsidising Labour. And if it turns out that leaders of a Labour government,
judged by their own words, harbour what sounds like a real, active loathing
for workers who won't mind their place, a Labour government surely deserves
to be repaid in kind.
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