Monday, 17 October 2016

Aslan of Aslef

Image result for aslan + images

Camilla Long wrote and amusing sketch from the Labour Party conference last week which poked fun at the Dear Leader and one of his greatest admirers - Aslef's Tosh McDonald.

The full article is behind The Sunday Times paywall, but here's the reference to McDonald as the 'Aslan of Aslef' a quite delightful turn of phrase which made me laugh:

Corbyn gives a small wave, which I take as a sign that his goons must now execute Smith. He then begins an impromptu speech. I say impromptu because there is no way he has given it any thought — not even now he is speaking. He starts juddering, nonsensical sentences, with no idea of how he will finish them. How can someone be both inept and sly?

After a few stabs at Theresa May, he glances down at his lieutenants. Most of them are union bosses in leather jackets. One is Aslef’s Tosh McDonald. It’s no exaggeration to say the train drivers’ boss is by far the most beautiful man in politics. He has tattoos of stars on his earlobes and an eyecatching swoop of cream hair — he is the Aslan of Aslef. Apparently sometimes they discuss his hair at union meetings. On his knuckles is the word “Tosh” in case he forgets what he must say.

McDonald is thrilled that Corbyn has won again. After years of sneering Blairites, finally the hard left is getting a look-in. The Blairites surrounded themselves with yes men. “There was no criticism. Almost like the king’s new clothes,” he says. Can Corbyn take criticism? “If you’ll let me finish . . .”



The High Goat glides in, grins and gibbers

I am sitting in the Safe Space at the Labour Party conference, a small grey “huddle” room for emotionally weakened delegates. Outside, everyone is screaming, whooping and clapping for their lives, because Owen Smith has just conceded to Jeremy Corbyn. In a few moments Labour’s High Goat will glide onto the stage with 61.8% of the vote.

Personally I am disgusted this margin is so low, hoping as I was for Corbyn to win at least 126% in the most pointless, saddening, strange, token (and “expensive”, hisses a woman in the loos) re-election campaign ever.


What does ASLEF stand for? (16/09/16)

Tosh McDonald, the president of ASLEF, is what passes for leadership in the trade union movement these days.

Tosh (pictured above) compared Labour's former shadow secretary Hilary Benn to Hitler while speaking at a TUC fringe meeting in Brighton where he attacked Benn for supporting air strikes in Syria against the so-called Islamic State (IS).

While Benn compared military action against IS fascists to the fight against Franco during the Spanish civil war in the 1930s, rightly in my view, Tosh McDonald condemned Hilary Benn and the West as the real bad guys, saying:

“The only comparison I can draw is with Hitler and Mussolini, bombing the republican lines in Spain.”

Not surprisingly Benn responded quickly via Twitter with the restrained yet obvious comment:

“How can you equate the fascists of Daesh with the republicans fighting Franco in Spain?”

Quite so, and it will come as no surprise to learn that Tosh McDonald is a supporter of Jeremy Corbyn.


Confronting Evil (03/12/15)

Hilary Benn's hit the nail on the head in his speech to the House of Commons yesterday in which spoke as the Labour Party's shadow foreign secretary in favour of extending air strikes against the Islamic State in Syria.

Hilary Benn's central message was the need to confront the evil of Islamic fascism wherever this vile creed raises its head and his words were by far the most powerful in what was, by and large, an impressive debate.

Thank you very much Mr Speaker. Before I respond to the debate, I would like to say this directly to the Prime Minister. Although my right honourable friend the leader of opposition and I will walk into different division lobbies tonight, I am proud to speak from the same Despatch Box as him. My right honourable friend is not a terrorist sympathiser, he is a honest, a principled, a decent and a good man and I think the Prime Minister must now regret what he said yesterday and his failure to do what he should have done today, which is simply to say I am sorry.

Now Mr Speaker, we have had an intense and impassioned debate and rightly so, given the clear and present threat from Daesh, the gravity of the decision that rests upon the shoulders and the conscience of every single one of us and the lives we hold in our hands tonight. And whatever we decision we reach, I hope we will treat one another with respect.

Now we have heard a number of outstanding speeches and sadly time will prevent me from acknowledging them all. But I would just like to single out the contributions both for and against the motion from my honourable and right honourable friends the members for Derby South, Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle, Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford, Barnsley Central, Wakefield, Wolverhampton South East, Brent North, Liverpool, West Derby, Wirral West, Stoke-on-Trent North, Birmingham Ladywood and the honourable members for Reigate, South West Wiltshire, Tonbridge and Malling, Chichester and Wells.

The question which confronts us in a very, very complex conflict as at its heart very simple. What should we do with others to confront this threat to our citizens, our nation, other nations and the people who suffer under the yoke, the cruel yoke of Daesh. The carnage in Paris brought home to us the clear and present danger we face from them. It could just have just easily been London, or Glasgow, or Leeds or Birmingham and it could still be. And I believe that we have a moral and a practical duty to extend the action we are already taking in Iraq to Syria. And I am also clear, and I say this to my colleagues, that the conditions set out in the emergency resolution passed at the Labour party conference in September have been met.

We now have a clear and unambiguous UN Security Council Resolution 2249, paragraph 5 of which specifically calls on member states to take all necessary measures to redouble and co-ordinate their efforts to prevent and suppress terrorist acts committed specifically by Isil, and to eradicate the safe haven they have established over significant parts of Iraq and Syria.

So the United Nations is asking us to do something. It is asking us to do something now. It is asking us to act in Syria as well as in Iraq. And it was a Labour government that helped to found the United Nations at the end of the Second World War. And why did we do so? Because we wanted the nations of the world, working together, to deal with threats to international peace and security – and Daesh is unquestionably that.

So given that the United Nations has passed this resolution, given that such action would be lawful under Article 51 of the UN Charter – because every state has the right to defend itself – why would we not uphold the settled will of the United Nations, particularly when there is such support from within the region including from Iraq. We are part of a coalition of over 60 countries, standing together shoulder-to-shoulder to oppose their ideology and their brutality.

Now Mr Speaker, all of us understand the importance of bringing an end to the Syrian civil war and there is now some progress on a peace plan because of the Vienna talks. They are the best hope we have of achieving a cease-fire. Now that would bring an end to Assad’s bombing, leading to a transitional government and elections. And why is that vital? Both because it will help in the defeat of Daesh, and because it would enable millions of Syrians, who have been forced to flee, to do what every refugee dreams of: they just want to be able to go home.

Now Mr Speaker, no-one in this debate doubts the deadly serious threat we face from Daesh and what they do, although sometimes we find it hard to live with the reality. We know that in June four gay men were thrown off the fifth storey of a building in the Syrian city of Deir ez-Zor. We know that in August the 82-year-old guardian of the antiquities of Palmyra, Professor Khaled al-Assad, was beheaded, and his headless body was hung from a traffic light. And we know that in recent weeks there has been the discovery of mass graves in Sinjar, one said to contain the bodies of older Yazidi women murdered by Daesh because they were judged too old to be sold for sex.

We know they have killed 30 British tourists in Tunisia, 224 Russian holidaymakers on a plane, 178 people in suicide bombing in Beirut, Ankara, 134 people in Paris including those young people in the Bataclan whom Daesh – in trying to justify their bloody slaughter- called ‘apostates engaged in prostitution and vice’. If it had happened here, they could have been our children. And we know that they are plotting more attacks.

So the question for each of us –and for our national security – is this: given that we know what they are doing, can we really stand aside and refuse to act fully in our self-defence against those who are planning these attacks? Can we really leave to others the responsibility of defending our national security when it is our responsibility? And if we do not act, what message would that send about our solidarity with those countries that have suffered so much – including Iraq and our ally, France.

Now, France wants us to stand with them and president Holland – the leader of our sister socialist party – has asked for our assistance and help. And as we are undertaking airstrikes in Iraq where Daersh’s hold has been reduced and undertaking everything but engage in airstrikes in Syria should we not play our full part?

It has been argued in the debate that airstrikes achieve nothing. Not so. Look at how Daesh’s forward march has been halted in Iraq. The House will remember that, 14 months ago, people were saying: ‘they are almost at the gates of Baghdad’. And that is why we voted to respond to the Iraqi government’s request for help to defeat them. Look at how their military capacity and their freedom of movement has been put under pressure. Ask the Kurds about Sinjar and Kobani. Nowof course, air strikes alone will not defeat Daesh-but they make a difference. Because they are giving them a hard time – and it is making it more difficult to expand their territory.

Now, I share the concerns that have been expressed this evening about potential civilian casualties. However, unlike Daesh, none of us today act with the intent to harm civilians. Rather, we act to protect civilians from Daesh – who target innocent people.

Now on the subject of ground troops to defeat Daesh, there’s been much debate about the figure of 70,000 and the government must, I think, better explain that. But we know that most of them are currently engaged in fighting President Assad. But I’ll tell you what else we know, is whatever the number – 70,000, 40,000, 80,000 – the current size of the opposition forces mean the longer we leave taking action the longer Daesh will have to decrease that number. And so to suggest, Mr Speaker, that airstrikes should not take place until the Syrian civil war has come to an end is, I think, to miss the urgency of the terrorist threat that Daesh poses to us and others, and I think misunderstands the nature and objectives of the extension to airstrikes that is being proposed. And of course we should take action. It is not a contradiction between the two to cut off Daesh’s support in the form of money and fighters and weapons, and of course we should give humanitarian aid, and of course we should offer shelter to more refugees including in this country and yes we should commit to play our full part in helping to rebuild Syria when the war is over.

Now I accept that there are legitimate arguments, and we have heard them in the debate, for not taking this form of action now. And it is also clear that many members have wrestled, and who knows, in the time that is left, may still be wrestling, with what the right thing to do is. But I say the threat is now, and there are rarely, if ever, perfect circumstances in which to deploy military forces. Now we heard very powerful testimony from the honorable member for Eddisbury earlier when she quoted that passage, and I just want to read what Karwan Jamal Tahir, the Kurdistan regional government high representative in London, said last week and I quote: ‘Last June, Daesh captured one third of Iraq over night and a few months later attacked the Kurdistan region. Swift airstrikes by Britain, America and France, and the actions of our own peshmerga, saved us. We now have a border of 650 miles with Daesh. We’ve pushed them back, and recently captured Sinjar. Again, Western airstrikes were vital. But the old border between Iraq and Syria does not exist. Daesh fighters come and go across this fictional boundary. And that is the argument Mr Speaker, for treating the two countries as one if we are serious about defeating Daesh.

Now Mr Speaker, I hope the house will bear with me if I direct my closing remarks to my Labour friends and colleagues on this side of the House. As a party we have always been defined by our internationalism. We believe we have a responsibility one to another. We never have – and we never should – walk by on the other side of the road.

And we are here faced by fascists. Not just their calculated brutality, but their belief that they are superior to every single one of us in this chamber tonight, and all of the people that we represent. They hold us in contempt. They hold our values in contempt. They hold our belief in tolerance and decency in contempt. They hold our democracy, the means by which we will make our decision tonight, in contempt. And what we know about fascists is that they need to be defeated. And it is why, as we have heard tonight, socialists and trade unionists and others joined the International Brigade in the 1930s to fight against Franco. It’s why this entire House stood up against Hitler and Mussolini. It is why our party has always stood up against the denial of human rights and for justice. And my view, Mr Speaker, is that we must now confront this evil. It is now time for us to do our bit in Syria. And that is why I ask my colleagues to vote for the motion tonight.


Women Drivers (27/12/11)

I decided to have another look at the position of women members in the train drivers trade union ASLEF - see post dated December 27th 2011 - 'Song Remains the Same'.

Now almost ten years on from my original article - for one of the Sunday newspapers - there has been some progress - of sorts you could say.

But the pace of change is embarrassingly slow - things are moving along at a snail's pace - rather than the speed of a sleek high-speed train.

Because in 2002 the figures recorded by the TUC for ASLEF showed:

ASLEF 2002
Total members - 15,553
Men - 15,180 (97.6%)
Women - 373 (2.4%)

But almost ten years on the latest TUC figures now show:

ASLEF 2011
Total members - 18,532
Men - 17,866 (96.3%)
Women - 666 (3.7%)

So while the percentage of women members in 2002 was a lowly 2.4% - almost 10 years later it 'climbed' to an underwhelming 3.7%.

In that decade ASLEF's women membership rose by 293 (from 373 to 666) - yet the number of men in the union also increased - by 2,686 (from 15,180 to 17,866).

Of the total increase in ASLEF's membership - 2979 (from 15,553 to 18,532) - 9.8% were women (293) while 91.2% were men.

Now this is not a complete picture of course - because not every worker is necessarily a member of the trade union, ASLEF.

But what it does tell you is that there is something far wrong with the recruitment practices in the rail industry - because these are some of the best paid jobs in the country - yet women drivers are about as rare as hen's teeth.

If the rail industry has been trying to achieve a better balanced workforce over the past 10 years - trying to attract more women - then it has failed miserably.

And so has ASLEF it has to be said - because there are lots of women out there doing very demanding and responsible jobs - who would gladly drive a train for a salary worth around £50,000 a year.

No doubt the employers and the trade unions will say - that they are both fully committed to equality issues and equal opportunities in the rail industry.

But if that's the case then how come 9 men have been recruited for every woman - over the past ten years? 

The answer is that a 'hidden hand' is at work - one that is keeping women out of this highly unionised and well-paid  workforce.

And that is something about which both the employers and the trade unions - should be deeply ashamed.

'Aslef of Arabia' (29/12/11)

A number of readers have been in touch to ask where the 'We the Women'  picture came from - to accompany the post about women drivers - dated 27 December 2011.

Well  it comes from people campaigning in Saudi Arabia - against the ban on women driving cars and other motor vehicles - public or private.

According to the Saudi authorities it's against Islamic teaching that women should drive cars - never mind trains - it's against the law of the land.

Any women caught doing so - by the religious police - are liable to be severely punished.

But all hope is not lost - because people are fighting back - with courage, wit and humour.

By arguing that it's ridiculous and even anti-Islamic - to suggest that God somehow proclaimed that women can't drive.

'We the Women' is their campaign slogan.

And the campaigners think of all kinds of ways to illustrate how crazy it is - to ordain that women can use washing machines or mobile phone or computers - but not cars (or trains for that matter).

Some women have taken to dressing up in male clothes and wearing false moustaches - to ridicule the authorities - but as the law stand women still need a man to drive them around.

Apparently a father, brother, son - or just about any old male relative will do - which seems bizarre. 

Now to look at the statistics on the number of women train drivers in this country - or the number of women members in Aslef - you'd be forgiven for thinking that God had made a similar proclamation in the UK.

But thankfully no one believes that kind of nonsense in this country.

So maybe 'We the Women' will catch on in the UK - maybe even deep in the bowels of the still male dominated parts of the UK trade union movement. 

I for one hope so - anyway.

Song Remains the Same (26 December 2011)

Londoners face a day of travel disruption today - as ASLEF members stage a 24-hour strike on the underground network. 

The dispute is apparently about working on public holidays such as Boxing Day - with ASLEF demanding that their members should be paid triple time - plus an extra day in lieu.

Quite what the logic of this demand is I don't know - because no other public service industry in the land pays such high rates - as far as I know anyway.

So what makes train or tube drivers so special - because a nurse or a carer doesn't get triple time and a day in lieu?

Nothing is the answer, but for years the rail unions have used their bargaining position to drive up pay and conditions - for jobs that don't hold a candle to many other demanding jobs in the public sector.

The London underground drivers are paid salaries worth almost £50,000 a year - much more than a highly qualified nurse running an intensive care unit, for example.

But the drivers willingness to go on strike regularly has driven wages up to levels that are in no way justified - in terms of the skill and responsibility of their jobs.

Successive governments have lacked the will to bring forward proposals to require compulsory arbitration in damaging disputes like these - which is really what's required.

Here's something I wrote about ASLEF for one of the Sunday newspapers, almost 10 years ago now, I don't think much has changed beyond the fact that the union has a new general sercretary.

In essence the song remains the same.

What does ASLEF stand for?

Mick Rix is the top banana in the train drivers union, ASLEF; a tough-minded negotiator by all accounts, which is fair enough because that’s what he’s paid to do by his 15,553 members. But don’t be fooled into believing that the current rash of rail disputes is about some noble cause. Oh no, this is free market economics, red in tooth and claw, and Aslef is the trade union movement’s answer to David Beckham, only much less modern in its outlook.

Railway drivers are an elite group. While other trade unions have merged to create industry wide bargaining, ASLEF remains resolutely on its own, which makes sense from a narrow self-interest point of view since becoming part of a bigger bargaining group would dilute the drivers’ negotiating strength. So, ASLEF members pay some of the highest union contribution rates in the land, £17.77 a month, as the price of maintaining their independence.

Elsewhere, trade union have put aside old differences and looked to the future: Cohse, Nalgo and Nupe merged to form Unison, AEU and MSF tied the knot recently to re-emerge as Amicus, and the GMB and TGWU are engaged in a long courtship to create another new super union, which cynics predict will be called the G&T- union barons are part of the establishment nowadays, by and large, the class warriors are long gone.

Transport unions have also gone down this path. The NUR and NUS gave birth to the RMT some years ago, but Aslef won’t touch it with a bargepole as long as the good times continue to roll. Mick Rix called for national bargaining recently as the way to bring peace to a troubled industry, though he means bargaining in separate groups, not industry wide, so that train drivers can continue to hold employers and commuters to ransom. Of course, national bargaining is no answer at all if it simply ratchets up pay levels, regardless of productivity or the employer’s ability to pay, since unsustainably high fares will be the result.

Yet drivers are not amongst the ranks of the low paid-not by a long chalk! A driver’s job carries responsibility for public safety, admittedly, but involves relatively little training or skill compared to a nurse, for example. So, why are rail drivers paid more than twice as much as a newly qualified staff nurse who has studied for a minimum of three years?

The answer lies in poor management and lack of political leadership resulting in an industry that’s a terrible mess, as everyone knows. Successive governments have ducked long-term investment decisions and the public is now paying the price, but the culture of the railways needs a radical shake-up as well.

Incredibly, ASLEF can boast of only 373 women amongst the ranks of its members according to the TUC’ s web site. 2.4% explains a lot about the culture inside the union and since ASLEF operates pretty much as a closed shop, it also paints an accurate picture of the wider industry; backward looking, a stranger to equal opportunities and the notion that women might have the skills necessary to drive a train. Spelling out the union’s acronym sums things up rather neatly: ASLEF is the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen. What’s in a name? Quite a lot if you think about it.

Performance wise, there’s a good case for tying senior rail executives to their own tracks for allowing macho industrial relations to develop such a strong hold. ASLEF is merely exploiting the situation for all it’s worth, going back to the movement’s historical roots with a dose of old-fashioned trade union syndicalism. Issues of low pay elsewhere in the industry, within the RMT for example, are unimportant and the public interest barely registers on the union’s radar screen. It’s a dog eat dog world out there and no one is going to look at the world from the point of view of the long suffering, fare paying passenger.

So, these strikes are not about low pay, rapacious employers, or attacks on trade union rights and members interests. Instead, they’re about ASLEF exploiting a bargaining position that’s been reinforced by breathtaking incompetence from senior managers. Appealing to common sense or reason won’t make a blind bit of difference at this stage, hard-nosed thinking and a commitment to change is the only answer.

In a rational world, the government would move quickly to restore order to the present chaos. A modern public transport system will never be achieved with industrial relations that belong to the 19th century. Why invest billions if managers try to operate services by relying on drivers to work overtime, which is asking for trouble?

Big reforms are possible without attacking drivers or union rights. Compulsory arbitration ought to be high on Stephen Byers agenda as he fights for his political career and comes up with a cunning plan to get Labour off the ropes ahead of the next election.

Scotland’s first minister, Jack McConnell, got it right by describing industrial relations in the railways as ‘shocking’ in the 21st century, but government needs a strategy not just angry words.

Mark A. Irvine

January 2002