Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Unbelievable Arrogance

I listened to one of our 'striking' MSPs on the radio - who is not going into work today at the Scottish Parliament - because he is out supporting the public sector pensions dispute.

The MSP was put on the spot by the interviewer - to explain if he would or would not be getting paid - as he was not going about his normal duties.

The MSP squirmed a bit before answering - that he would be prepared to donate his  day's pay to a charitable cause - of his choice.

What unbelievable arrogance.

If MSPs are not prepared to go into their normal place of work today - where ironically a debate on public sector pensions is taking place - then they should not be paid.

If they want to go off and stand on picket lines or join demonstrations - that's fine - but why should the public purse subsidise these activities - when MSPs should be doing their day jobs.

Nor should there be any questions of MSPs donating their day's pay to charity - as a means of ingratiating themselves with some good cause - let them do that out of their own money.

Because the bottom line is that if they are not working in the Scottish Parliament - which is open for business as normal - then they should be deducted a day's pay.

Anything else would be a scandalous waste of public money.

Political Posturing

I read somehwere that Labour MSPs are not going to their work at the Scottish Parliament as normal today - because they are not going to cross picket lines in support of the public sector pensions strike.

But the same thing is not happening at Westminster apparently - where the Labour leadership will be going about their duties without any disruption.

Please someone tell me that this is not true - or if it is true - then please explain the difference in what Labour is doing north and south of the border.

Because this strikes me - if that's the right word - as devolution gone mad.

The strike has nothing directly to do with MSPs in the Scottish Parliament - they are not being asked to cover the duties of any striking civil servants.

So this is just posturing - while trying to curry favour with the unions - perhaps because there is a leadership election underway.

Maybe that's it - maybe I've hit on the answer - but if so it's a sad day for democracy. 

Are these same MSPs going to come out in sympathy - if there is more industrial action in the New Year?

I think not but I think the nation deserves and answer - along with confirmation that they will all be docked a day's pay.

Strikingly Unfair

Yesterday's newspapers were full of angry rhetoric about more industrial action in the New Year - before today's public sector pensions strike even got underway.

What puzzles me is why the trade unions support more favourable treatment for different groups of workers?

Now I can understand why the head teachers union would fight to retain a final salary pension scheme - because it favours people who earn a big salary in the final stages of their careers.

But the head teachers' final salary pension is being heavily subsidised - by the school cleaner, the classroom assistant and the school meals worker.

So why don't the GMB, Unison and Unite - stand up and condemn this nonsense as strikingly unfair?

Because that's exactly what it is - and ironically that's what the Labour party and the trade unions say they stand for - equality and fairness at work.

In which case why do they not come out and say that everyone should have the same normal retirement age - why should some groups of workers be allowed to retire before others?

I don't buy for a minute the suggestion that school teachers are somehow more 'burnt out' by 60 - than a classroom assistant or a care worker, for example.

Why should the lower paid groups - be on such inferior conditions compared to their higher paid colleagues?

To its eternal shame the Labour party is encouraging this crazy behaviour - when in truth its leaders accept the case for reform.
The bottom line is fairness at work - and if some public sector workers are more equal  than others, then no matter how you cut it - that's simply not fair.   

Glasgow City Council

I had to laugh when I caught sight of the Daily Record yesterday.

This Labour supporting paper ran two stories about the public sector pensions strike - which were  contradicatory and completely at odds with each other.  

The first headline attacked the government for its proposed pension reforms - which were of course drawn up by John Hutton - work and pensions Minister in the last Labour government.

The second attacked the 'golden goodbyes' paid to senior council officials in Glasgow - a story which the Daily Record has shamelessly lifted from the Sunday Herald.

But what no one has had the guts to say is that the strike is about defending the final salary pension schemes - which allowed senior officials in Glasgow to walk out the door with these  huge pensions benefits.

Which the people involved haven't actually earned - lower paid council staff and the taxpayer are picking up the bill for this generosity.

No wonder the Daily Record sales have gone through the floor in recent years - for  serious journalism and intelligent reporting - you need to look eslehwere.

Headline 1
Scotland set for biggest strike since the 1970s as 300,000 public service workers walk out in protest at Con-Dem attack on pensions

Headline 2
Glasgow City Council forks out nearly £800k in 'golden goodbyes' as staff pay freeze continues

Eight bosses at Glasgow City Council have been paid £738,000 in "golden goodbyes" while staff suffer a pay freeze.

Three of them walked away with early retirement lump sums of more than £100,000.

Chief solicitor Ian Drummond got £109,303 "compensation for loss of office" plus an annual £11,040 payment.

And Steve Inch, the council's "regeneration tsar", left with £109,279 plus a yearly sum of £11,032.

Inch's assistant director, Jim Cunningham, walked away with £82,741 plus an annual sum of £7853.

Wendy O'Donnell, an area education manager for south-west Glasgow, got £70,297 and £6935 a year.

Dawn Corbett, who was head of corporate policy, left with £48,044 and a £6571 annual payment.

And Fergus Chambers, head of care and catering firm Cordia, got a £101,662 exit payment plus annual compensation of £11,032.

Disgraced chief executive Steven Purcell set up Cordia and other publicly owned companies to provide council services during his reign.

Glasgow MSP Bill Kidd of the SNP said the huge payouts seemed "wrongheaded" at a time when most public servants were being told to work longer and pay more for worse pensions.

But the council said the pay-offs, offered to all employees over 50, were the fairest way to cut staff at a time of massive pressure on their budgets.

The council have spent millions on similar payments since 2009.

City treasurer Paul Rooney said: "With local government facing unprecedented cuts, we cannot sustain the staff numbers we once had.

"The same offer has been made to all staff at every level - the overwhelming majority of those that will benefit from the scheme sit in the lower half of the pay grades."

Rogue State

Anyone who needs convicing that Iran is a rogue state - should reflect upon the attack on the British Embassy in Tehran.

The safety of foreign diplomats is a basic duty of any civilised state - whatever differences that exist between respective countries - for thousands of years it has been accepted that you don't 'shoot the messenger'.

Yet that is what the 'mad mullahs' in Tehran have done - by encouraging their proxies to attack what is effectively a tiny piece of the UK on foreign soil - where people should be safe and secure.

The UK's response should be measured but firm - pull out all embassy staff and put pressure on Russia and China to fall in line with the rest of the international community.

Because up until now Russia and China have effectively been helping to prop up this tyrannical regime - led by religious extremists.

Iran has previous 'form' in this area - and a history of taking hostages as a way of prosecuting disputes.

But it is completely vile behaviour that cannot be tolerated by the United Nations and the international community - otherwise things will spiral even further out of control.  

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Reckless Intent

The worst and saddest story of the week - so far anyway - is that of an elderly widow - Nellie Geraghty.

Nellie (79) suffered serious head injuries and died - while defending herself against violent muggers who stole her handbag.

The handbag contained £200 in cash - but the reason Nellie put up such a fight was that she also carried around a small box which contained the ashes of her husband - who died 17 years ago.

Two youths have been arrested - aged 14 and 17 - and are being questioned on suspicion of murder.

The immediate thought that went through my head when I heard the news was - that could have been my Mum - on her way to church or the shops - only to be set upon by two thugs.

Now if the two people in custody are the ones responsible for the crime - to my mind they should not be allowed to get away with a plea of - 'we didn't mean to kill the 79 year-old grandmother, honestly. It was an accident'.

The problem is that violent criminals often use this defence and - literally - get away with murder because the law normally requires the prosecution to show 'intent' on the part of the accused.

So if they're practised liars and have a 'good' lawyer - they exploit the fact that the victim is no longer around and say something along the lines of - 'I didn't stab him, he just ran on to the knife. It was an accident. Honest'.

In which case I say the law is an ass - and that the issue of intent in such crimes needs to be looked at again - and interpreted more intelligently. 

For anyone to attack and rob a 79 year-old grandmother is outrageous - but it is also completely reckless and dangerous.

So reckless and dangerous in fact - that such criminals should be held accountable for their actions - they either knew or should have known that such behaviour could result in the serious injury - or even the death of their victim.

None of this will be of any comfort to Nellie and her family - of course.

But it may do some good for the future if the underlying issues are discussed more openly and with the public - by the lawmakers and politicians.

A brief headline in the news won't change anything - but engaging with the public will bring about change - and that's what politics is supposed to be about.

Making life better and safer for people like Nellie Geraghty. 

Celebrity Britain

The fact the country is going to hell in a hand cart - doesn't seem to dent the nation's appetite for pap and nonsense about 'Celebrity Britain' - which somehow or other makes its way into the news.

My jaw dropped the other day when I read an inane interview with Ann Widdecombe - the former MP and official 'worst dancer in the world' - which managed to squirrel its way on to the BBC's web site.

Ann was complaining - loud and long - to someone called Fern Britton that she was "deliberately" snubbed by the Prime Minister - David Cameron - who denied her a seat in the House of Lords.

An honour and a peerage that's worth £300 a day in tax free allowances plus expenses - of course - on top of your MP's generous pension.

How dare he - the bounder - doesn't he appreciate Ann's unbridled sense of entitlement - and overblown opinion of herself?

I blame all these people who watch Strictly Come Dancing - for puffing up the already inflated egos of these mad politicians - whom we thought we'd got rid of, but who come back to haunt us on a daily basis it seems.

Next thing you know - we'll see Lord John Prescott in ballet shoes and a red rose tutu - dancing to the tune of the Sugar Plum Fairy.

But what on earth the BBC is doing giving airtime to these airheads - is beyond me.

I only hope there was no public money involved - because that would be the final insult to BBC licence payers and taxpayers.

Champagne and Socialists

I read all the coverage of Labour's Scottish leadership election - at the weekend.

I know - I must be mad - but soon the excitment will end and it will all be over.

If I had a vote - which I don't - I think I would vote for Ken Macintosh because he at least sounds like a normal human being - who is capable engaging with and communicating with ordinary people - without resorting to political gobbledegook.

My second preference vote would be for Tom Harris - who is also a good communicator and the one most willing - seems to me anyway - to face up to and challenge the 'conservative' nature of the Labour party in Scotland. 

To my mind Scotland has two 'conservative' parties - the Tories and Scottish Labour - the latter being completely dominated by vested interests and an old-fashioned trade union mindset.

My third preference would be for Johann Lamont - whom I don't know and I'm sure is a nice person - but she doesn't come across to me as a 'game changer' - someone with the style and substance to take on Alex Salmond and the SNP.

Most of the trade union support has gone Johann Lamont's way - as it did with Ed Miliband who won the UK Labour leadership because of the backing from the big public sector unions - Unite, Unison and GMB.

David Miliband actually won the majority of support from ordinary party members and Labour MPs - but he was pipped at the post by younger brother Ed - who won 'big' in the trade union section of Labour's barmy three-way electoral college. 

So who knows - maybe the unions will win it again for Johann?

If so, it will be the worst possible result - and a sign that it's back to 'business as usual' - for the People's Party in Scotland.

In which case Alex Salmond and the SNP will be popping the champagne corks - and throwing wild parties.

Punch and Judy Politics

John Rentoul had an excellent article in the Independent the other day - in which he bemoaned the 'yah-boo' nature of modern politics - while noticing some signs of intelligent life in the Labour party. 

So maybe all is not lost - yet.

The basic decision to tackle the country's 'out-of-control' spending and borrowing habits - or Plan A as it's referred to in the media - is clearly the right thing to do.

So attacking the government on all fronts is plainly bonkers - because Labour would do little different - and the public know that fine well. 

In which case Labour should be arguing for specific intiatives that will target growth and potentially create jobs - instead of implying its steadfast support for every crackpot issue under the sun.

Such as the 'anti-capitalist' protesters outside St Paul's Cathedral - or the trade unions' defence of final salary pension schemes. 

Or to put it another way - if Labour had a bit more balls instead of Balls - and started  speaking common sense - then the party might get somewhere.

In the meantime we might just have to settle for more Punch and Judy politics - from the country's leaders in Westminster.

Labour wakes up, fuzzy and too late

As Osborne fiddles, Miliband, rather belatedly, is beginning to think about balancing the books

A few more schemes, complications and subsidies and pretty soon I shall have to go away and rethink my life. I had thought that Gordon Brown was a bad Chancellor because he fiddled with the tax system, finding another few hundred million down the back of a refurbished Treasury armoire for footling schemes designed to secure a day's headlines; complicated things so no one could work out why what he had just said was rubbish even though it obviously was; and invented subsidies, tax reliefs and distortions that turned out to be counter-productive.

At this rate, though, we may have to conclude that the fault lay not with Brown's personality but with the Treasury or, worse, with contemporary politics. Because George Osborne is up to the same silly, self-defeating tricks.

Even the most worthy scheme so far, which the Chancellor allowed Nick Clegg to unveil last week, to subsidise the wages of young people newly hired in the next three years, is not as good as it looks. It is £1bn to employers to do what most of them would be doing anyway, and if it influences their behaviour at all it will encourage them to hire young people who qualify, rather than those who are just over 24 or who have been unemployed for just less than six months.

At least it is better than the infuriating plan to offer a state guarantee for mortgages offered to first-time buyers who are bad risks, also announced last week. If it works, the scheme would increase demand for homes, and therefore increase prices, at a time when everyone seems to agree that cheaper homes, and more of them, would be a good idea.

There will be more of this nonsense on Tuesday, when Osborne rises to deliver the Autumn Statement. All he needs to say is that the forecasts made by the independent Office for Budget Responsibility in March have been revised downwards. He could explain why, which is mainly because the eurozone is in more of a mess than anyone expected. He could have an entertaining argument with Ed Balls about the pace of deficit reduction. Balls could quote Keynesian economists saying that a bit more government borrowing now might save a lot of borrowing later, and Osborne could say that, if the bond markets take fright it doesn't matter how many Keynesians you can cut and paste, it is all over. Then he could sit down and we could get on with the ceaseless struggle to make exports that foreigners want at prices they can afford.

Instead, because of his temperament, or because Treasury officials have got at him, or because modern politics is like that, the Chancellor will want to surprise us with some shiny policy gizmo. He will therefore announce, to much cheering, some superficially clever tax cut for business or subsidy for investors that will be called a "plan for growth" and commend it to the House.

It is enough to make one nostalgic for Nigel Lawson, a Chancellor serious about tax simplification and impatient with the disreputable side of political showbiz.

The one thing we can be sure of, however, is that Osborne's performance this week, however bad, and regardless of the unanimity among commentators saying his make-piece public-relations doo-dahs are worse than useless, will not make the voters nostalgic for a Labour government.

So the big story of this week will be: Osborne makes hyped statement full of trivial schemes designed to promote growth, which at worst are counter-productive, at best, in Keynes's immortal phrase, pushing on a string, at a time when the entire eurozone is breaking apart. But the Opposition isn't trusted and has no better line of attack than, "You're in a mess, aren't you?"

Which is why it is interesting that there are signs of life in the Labour Party after all. By which I mean that there are still people in the party who realise that winning elections means winning over people who thought that the Tories were right last time.

There was an intriguing passage in Ed Miliband's speech last week in which he said that "the next Labour government is likely to inherit borrowing levels that still need to be reduced". He said that "resources will have to be focused significantly on paying down that deficit" and that the party would have to find "different way of delivering ... social justice in straitened times".

Fuzzy and 18 months late, these phrases hinted at a Labour policy capable of winning the fiscally conservative centre ground. Just on cue, two publications this week will set out in more detail what such a policy might mean. A Policy Network pamphlet by four authors, including Anthony Painter and Hopi Sen, is called In the Black Labour, playing on the fashion for symbolic colours (Red Tories, Blue Labour, The Purple Book). It advocates, clearly and admirably briefly, the case for Labour fiscal conservatism, saying that the party should try to outdo the Tories in promising to balance the books. It even quotes Ed Balls from 1998: "Left-of-centre governments need to favour tough fiscal policy because from time to time, if economic crises occur, you may have to relax that."

Also this week, Luke Bozier and Alex Smith publish a book called Labour's Business, which devotes serious thought to what ought to be one of the most important questions the party asks itself: "Why did Labour not have the support of a single business leader at the last election?" Smith is significant because he was a central member of Ed Miliband's leadership campaign team but left in disillusionment.

Osborne will carry the day on Tuesday, however bad his policies, therefore. Yet, though it may already be too late, at least some people in the Labour Party are trying to stop him.

Day of Action

Back in the bad old days - the real bad old days of the 1980s when the Thatcher government was in power - I lived and worked in London.

I was a fullt-ime official with NUPE at the time - which has since become part of Unison - but I remember we had a big national day of action in the health service - in 1988 - over pay.

I remember it vividly because I worked with a great bunch of young union reps at St Mary's Hospital in Paddington - one of the big London teaching hospitals - who were all nurses.

And they were all extremely bright, articulate and unafraid of speaking up in front of the media - whose cameras loved them especially if they were in uniform.

But when it came to the 'day of action' - which we called a strike to attract maximum attention and publicity - virtually no one was on strike.

We negotiated with the hospital management so that nurses and other staff could join the protest outside the main hospital entrance - in their uniforms - and the key players either had time-off from work or flexibility to attend at the beginning and end of their shifts.

Result - a massively popular 'day of action' - but no union members lost money, no operations or appointments were cancelled - and no patients or relatives were incovenienced. 

And we got our message across in a hugely successful way - with one of the young nurses doing a live interview on the BBC's flagship 6 o'clock evening news.

Compare that with what's likely to happen tomorrow over the public sector pensions strike.

Seems to me the trade union movement is going backwards not forwards - and has learned very little in the past 25 years.

Monday, 28 November 2011

Democracy Rules

Strikes and strike ballots are very blunt instruments - as more and more people will start to realise - as next week's public sector pension strikes get underway.

What exactly are people striking for - is a reasonable question to ask?

1 About plans to introduce career average pensions - and end final salary schemes
2 About the planned increase in the normal retirement age
3 About the planned increase in employee contributions

The answer to these questions will vary enormously - depending on whether someone is a head teacher or senior council official - a home carer or a classroom assistant.

Yet people are all asked the same question - a simple one-size-fits-all question - when asked if they are willing to go on strike.

As if their interests are all the same - which they're not of course.

And when you factor in the impact on a low turnout - it's reasonable to ask who is actually voting to go on strike and for what purpose?

Because the low paid - for example - have no interest in trying to defend final salary pensions schemes.

Yet that appears to be what the strike is all about - for some groups at least.

So the strategy and tactics of a strike - any strike - are in the hands of union leaders.

Who decide what question members are asked and - within limits - when to go back and ask the members if they are prepared to strike again.

On this occasion the government has made an improved offer - which benefits the lower paid and those nearest retirement age.

But has not given ground on the issue of raising the normal retirement age for everyone - or on the introduction of pensions based on career average earnings.

Yet the union ballots took place largely before these concessions were made - leaving union leaders to decide their significance - instead of the ordinary members.

And as so many union leaders have a nakedly partisan, political agenda - it's inevitable that the spotlight will now turn - and shine on the way ballots are conducted.

Because there are improvements that could be made to the present system - in the pursuit of greater grassroots union democracy.