Unfairly dismissed? Well, speak to your union…

The Beecroft Report commissioned – and apparently supported – by the Head Bullingdon Boy himself, which was leaked originally on Tuesday to the Telegraph, continues to startle.

It is not just that the evidence base for the conclusion is so poor, as revealed by Channel 4’s FactCheck (did No. 10 really pay money for this? And, if so, who paid?). And neither is it the overt prejudice on the issue of workers’ rights from the shurely unlikely source of a venture capitalist who has strong links to the Tories, as revealed today in the Indy. This is, perhaps, the most shocking sign yet of the attack on working people which the Tories are mounting under cover of the state of the economy. Not an unprecedented attack, by any means, but which is startling from the perspective that it is a coalition government that is making it (although the junior partner has squeaked its opposition to the Report). And neither was there any mention of abolishing unfair dismissal laws in the Tory manifesto. No-one, indeed, voted for this.

Two observations, really:

(a) this is a sign of an increasingly confident, not to say arrogantly aggressive, government which feels it needs to pay no attention to protest. This might have been a bit of kite flying to assess public reaction to such a move, but I doubt it: such a piece of kite flying wouldn’t have been attempted by a government that knew it would not get away with it. Consequently, protest actions – like the one on November 30 on pensions in the civil service – need to be supported and the actions themselves need to be stronger if the attacks on working people are not to become even more direct.

(b) unfair dismissal laws were introduced – originally by a Conservative government, ironically enough, albeit in a rather different era of unions’ ability to mount a strikingly successful national campaign of civil disobedience to the law and its machinery – since it was thought by the 1965-1968 Donovan Commission that a law institutionalising unfair dismissal would prevent much of the unofficial strikes over dismissals which it regarded as a major factor in the UK’s low productivity. It is a sign of the times that we now have a new Tory-centred administration which is either ignorant of this or which feels it can simply ignore it on the assumption that strikes are now – and with some exceptions, this week not least – such an apparently invisible part of the industrial relations scene.

The ability of trade unions to take strike action over unfair dismissals, particularly unofficially, might be far removed from policy considerations these days, but the suggestion that things have gone so far that public policy can remove one of the employment rights safeguards whose original intention was actually to reduce the incidence of such action being taken is a novel one. Nevertheless, that’s a manual we will have to dust off again if we are to be able to deal convincingly with the increasing threats which this government is posing to workers’ rights. And, conversely to its aims, dusting off that manual is a move which could be good for us – if, of course, we can remember where we put it. Like the Charter earlier this year, this is something around which we could organise – but ideally locally, actively, rather than nationally.

Back to the future? Only under the Tories…


Private and public debt

I’m catching up late with this, but this is indeed an excellent post (and, indeed, blog) on the Office for Budgetary Responsibility’s revision of its forecasts on what is going to happen to private debt over the next few years. As public debt is being reduced, private debt is now likely to expand.

Inevitably, government cuts to public services will lead to people paying for them separately, thus squeezing household finances further and driving up household debt; while an economy actively flirting with depression will cause further problems to household debts as people lose their jobs, on top of the impact of the falling value of real incomes, as people seek to maintain living standards as far as possible. That’s not rocket science – except, it would seem, to a government intent on blazing a path back to the 80s.

This may well spell bad news for the 2012 pensions reforms: rising private debt, on top of household savings apparently resuming pre-recession trends, is likely to cause further pressures on peoples’ ability to save (more) for their retirement. At the same time, rising debt is likely to increase pressures for people to have access to their pension pots early. This has already been the subject of a Treasury consultation. Evidently, pensions are not savings per se – rainy days are what savings are for; pensions are for your retirement – but seeking to encourage people to save more while engaging in policies that are driving up their debts is an unhealthy and short-sighted combination.

At the wider, political level, we may well here be sowing the seeds of a future financial crash – but it is clear that the intentional driving up of private debt, despite the lessons of what the economy has been through in the past few years, itself underlines the sharply ideological nature of this government’s intensifying onslaught.

[Edit 1 April: And for living proof that, if you sit an infinite number of bloggers down in front of an infinite number of keyboards, you will get, if not the works of Shakespeare then more or less similar posts, within almost literally seconds of posting this, I discovered that Duncan Weldon over at False Economy had made most of the same points, and better, and with more links, too. Damn!]

Mind your language…

Two particularly excellent bits of blogging I enjoyed this week about the ‘cleansing’ spat between BoJo and Bullingdon Dave:

Firstly, Tom Watson MP’s spoof ‘clarification’ from BoJo is well worth a read and Nicky’s comment that BoJo knew exactly what he was doing in the interview looks spot-on to me. And the reference to the ‘Cleggeron’ government – well, I already see Clegg and Cameron as lizards in a human skin straight from an episode of Dr. Who, so I may just have to adopt that.

Secondly, Tom Powdrill gets it exactly right in recalling in this context the incredibly distasteful use by the right, including Bullingdon Dave, of ‘apartheid’ to describe the pensions situation in the UK. Tories in glass houses, etc.

In one of the better bits of Question Time on Thursday night (in the section of the programme focusing on the spat), the historian Simon Schama referred very accurately to the deterioration in language when ordinary day-to-day events are descibed in extreme terms, which leaves us with few places to find meaningful terms when confronted with real tragedy – or, indeed, real excellence. I know it’s for effect, for headlines, tweets, publicity, etc. etc. – but we cheapen the political debate when we engage in it and we risk losing sight of the real issue, which – here – is the pernicious and unjust 10% automatic cut in housing benefit after one year. In a situation when one-half of renters cannot afford a cut in housing benefit, that will cause immense difficulties to a large number of families.

Still, I recall that Bullingdon Dave is well-placed to know the London housing rental market so no doubt he’s very aware of where hardship cuts in…

For decent work, stand up…

Today is the International Trade Union Confederation’s World Day for Decent Work 2010; while tonight sees Shappi Khorsandi join Philosophy Football for the TUC’s Stand up for Decent Work event. I’ve joined with a bunch of other bloggers over at Bloggers Unite to celebrate it.

What’s interesting about the Day is that it’s not about standing up for labour rights on behalf of someone else, in some other country – important though that is, too. It is, on the other hand, about standing up for your own rights, right here, in your own country. However, you want to define ‘decent work’, it doesn’t matter – what counts is that you do something to recognise the need to strive for it. And that, at the same time, you call to mind that, all over the globe, other trade unionists are doing the same to move the principle of ‘decent work’ forwards as well.

As trade unionists, we know that no social advance ever falls into your lap – whether it be (more) equal pay, union recognition or decent wages. What we do sometimes forget, however, is that, unless we continue to keep pushing forwards, not only do we not make further gains, we’re also likely to lose the progress that we’ve already made.

As the ConDems make the final preparations for their Spending Review, which will see departmental budgets cut by 25-40%; as call-me-Dave starts to repeat the ‘there is no alternative’ mantra of his Tory predecessor as Prime Minister but one, while his Foreign Secretary starts to retreat into a Little Englander mentality; and as paying for the costs of the crisis is lumped not on those that caused it but on the shoulders of ordinary working people, we need to remember that an alternative worth achieving is one that has to be fought for.

Stand up.

Turkey’s new ally?

So call-me-Dave has turned up in Ankara chummily vowing to ‘fight’ for Turkey’s membership of the EU.

Well, good on you – at least on the face of it (though comments as to the wider geo-political interests, with regard to Turkey’s ability to act as a restraint on Iranian nuclear ambitions, are no doubt also on the mark as to why this support was offered). It’s right that Turkey can play a bridging role between east and west, and provide a greater understanding of Islam within the EU, and this is the sort of role that Turkey, which applied for EU membership as far back as 50 years ago, has long sought for itself. In principle, and subject to meeting the demands of EU membership, including over EU member Cyprus and a better domestic human rights commitment, Turkey should be in the EU.

But: fine words butter no parsnips – and, aside of Cameron’s ability to say one thing to one audience when circumstances demand and another to a different audience (like here, for instance, over the Building Schools for the Future Fund; over the scrapping of the NHS central database; and over the continuing uncertainties over the establishment of the Green Investment Bank which, as the TUC’s Philip Pearson argues, are indeed stalling the coalition’s green ambitions), he also has policy inconsistences which mean that ‘fighting’ for the rights of Turkey may not, in the end, come to much. As Denis MacShane pointed out in yesterday’s ‘Comment Is Free’ bit of the The Guardian, these would include:

– leaving the mainstream of the European Parliament

– allying with the trenchant right-wing in the EU for which Cameron’s entirely legitimate desire for a greater understanding of Islam is not a policy priority

– a policy promise of a domestic referendum on any new EU treaties, endorsement of which is likely to be a tough ask in the context of domestic politics encompassing the UK Independence Party (though Cameron is not exactly a stranger to retreating from promises of an EU referendum).

It will be interesting to see whether Cameron’s self-portrayal as a friend of Turkey actually means anything in the tough battles to which these issues point, or whether his growing reputation as someone who backs down in the face of adversity will continue to find endorsement in, as I suspect, the eventual dropping of Turkey somewhere down the line.

Abuse of the language: Cameron

On top of the revelations about Gripper Stebson being a role model – apparently some sort of in-joke which went completely over the top of my head, anyway – now we have the following quote from the Prime Minister on his jaunt to America:

In my view that man should have died in jail. Full stop. End of.

Leaving aside the merits of the case – he’s probably right, though MacAskill no doubt would not have released al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds had he known he was going to live another eleven months plus – it’s the ‘End of.’ I’m most bothered about here. Aside of the garbage it represents in terms of syntax, it’s completely tautologous coming after the end of the previous ‘sentence’.

Look, ‘call me Dave’ or iDave or whoever it is you are this week, we know you’re a Tory toff. You can’t escape it and no amount of disguising it by speaking like a pleb gets you away from it any more than making popular references is going to give you the common touch. I’m not particularly bothered, since I don’t want you in the job anyway, but you’d do well to find that this electorate prefers a bit of gravitas in its Prime Ministers – something which your new mate in Washington DC has in buckets. Hope you learned at least that while you were out there swapping art and falling over yourself in the attempt to portray Britain as historically the junior partner in the relationship…

Not very Digital Britain

Last Thursday’s broadband industry event saw Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, put back to 2015 the commitment to extending a minimum broadband access speed of 2 Mpbs to all UK citizens. The existing universal service commitment, set out in last summer’s Digital Britain report (Chapter 3a, paras. 32ff), was to realise this by 2012 and, up to now, it has been shared by the Tories (while being derided as recently as last month as ‘pitifully unambitious‘ – a strange context in which to set an extension of the deadline).

Hunt’s announcement, however, abandons this consensus. Indeed, the whole Digital Britain initiative is, quietly, being dropped – it has disappeared from the current pages of the DCMS website and the report is accessible now only courtesy of the National Archives. An extension of the deadline sends entirely the wrong signals about how urgent the government sees the universal broadband service commitment – itself an issue of social inclusion which, it seems, is not on this coalition government’s agenda.

As far the communications infrastructure aspects of Digital Britain are concerned, there were five main initiatives which should have featured (largely) in the Digital Economy Act:

– a ‘final third’ fund (subsequently called the landline duty) raised on the basis of a 50p/month levy on phone lines and designed to assist with the extension of high-speed broadband to under-provided areas (dropped from the Finance Act prior to the election on the convention that controversial items are not proceeded with at this stage in the parliamentary timetable)

– a delivery authority for the ‘final third’ fund, now called Broadband Delivery UK (but which still has almost no web presence – perhaps a sign of its apparently shrinking role), and which didn’t actually need separate legislation

– a new statutory duty on Ofcom to promote investment in infrastructure in its decision-making (dropped from the Digital Economy Act at the insistence of the Tories)

– a new duty for Ofcom to publish a report on the state of the communications infrastructure every two years (still there in the Digital Economy Act, but has little relevance without the regulatory duty to promote investment. At the same time, if the campaigners on the government Your Freedom website have their way, this will also be lost should the Digital Economy Act be repealed: this occupies a leading priority in all three areas of the website)

– the USC (now put back three years as a ‘more realistic target’).

With a fair amount of temerity, Hunt blamed the previous government [registration required; limited viewing time] for having failed to put sufficient finance in place:

I’ve looked at the provision that the previous government made to achieve this by 2012 and, as I’m afraid with many schemes they announced, I’m not convinced that they put sufficient funding in place. [NB this precise quote doesn’t appear in Hunt’s speech on the DCMS website]

Despite this, Hunt had no new funds of his own to announce, being of the view that industry should come up with the goods, together with the £175m from the digital switchover fund and a repeat of the suggestion that this might be extended. Interestingly, Steve Robertson, chief executive of Openreach, is of the view that the government’s ambitious programme on high-speed broadband needs no less than £2bn of public funds to lubricate the wheels.

That’s way beyond anything the government is contemplating. Well, fingers crossed then, for the last meaningful bit of the communications infrastructure vision of Digital Britain. And as for the LibDems, despite support for Digital Britain initiatives right the way through to the election, they seem to have gone a bit quiet in government.