Sunday, November 30, 2008

Gordon at Progress Conference

Registration for the annual Progress Conference started at 9:00 yesterday morning at Congress Hall, TUC. The first keynote address was due to start at 10:00. As usual, despite my very best intentions, I was running late and I arrived at about 9:45 and went straight down to get a coffee in the TUC lower hall.

To my surprise the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, came down the stairs and started to shake everybody’s hand he came across including my own. I could only think at the time of saying “Hello Prime Minister”. Now of course I can think of all sorts of profound and convincing statements to say to him. But at the time it was only “Hello”. I couldn’t find my camera either to take a photo - but there you go.

It is only when you are up close to him that you realise that he is literally such a “big bloke” with a barrel like chest and rugby playing shoulders. His famous “big clunking fist” would indeed deliver quite a knock out punch. Light weight Tory leaders and egg throwers beware.

Gordon was the surprise keynote speaker and had not been on the original agenda. As soon as he entered the main hall there was a spontaneous standing ovation for him. Most of the audience didn’t have a clue that he was going to be there. He took over the platform for a confident and far reaching 20 minute speech, delivered without any obvious notes or screens (how do these people do it?).

I felt he was very buoyant but wanting to appear very calm. I think that the current financial crisis “extraordinary times need extraordinary solutions” is bringing out the best in him. It is “the biggest New Labour falls on us to deliver...We live in a global financial system where there is no global supervision" It’s personal as well, he talked about a women who wrote to him who had invested her savings in an Icelandic bank and could not any reassurance about her money. She had not slept for the previous 4 days. "We need to apply lasting values to new circumstances... Labour is the greatest force for fairness in our society. ..The lesson is that only progressive forces work”.

He also importantly, I think, gave an impression of optimism, not all is doom and gloom and in the long term we will come out of this. I managed to ask a question about the role that Governance failure in Banks, fund managers, accountants, actuaries etc, played in the current financial crisis and whether the concept of citizen investor will help prevent future failures. Gordon was I thought a bit wary in his answer but he assured us that once the crisis was under control there will be significant and wide reaching regulatory change in the future to prevent such things happening again. Fair enough.

In the last Progress conference I attended in 2006, Tony Blair was the keynote speaker. This was also in the same hall in Congress House. Tony had recently “agreed” to resign and delivered a blinding farewell speech. Later on I saw Gordon speak in this same location during the London trade union hustings for the deputy leadership election. He was very well received by that audience. Gordon left the Progress stage yesterday to another standing ovation.

I’ll post later on the rest of conference.

Future of Health & Safety Enforcement.

I attended this conference organised by the Centre for Corporate Accountability (CCA) on behalf of London UNISON regional Health & Safety Committee. It took place at the NUT headquarters in Hamilton Place, Kings Cross in its main hall and it was full. The CCA is a charity concerned with promoting worker and public safety.

The first speaker was Judith Hackitt, the Chair of the Health & Safety Executive Board. On the same panel was Graham Russell who is the Chief Executive of Local Better Regulation Office and Louise Adamson from “Families Against Corporate Killers” (FACK) see photo left. Louise gave the most impressive and emotive speech I have ever heard on the real importance of effective safety enforcement.

Judith spoke first and welcomed the new tougher sentencing that will come into force in January 2009. Fines have been significantly increased and many health & safety offences will now be punishable by imprisonment. She thought that the HSE have done a good job and that there had been a 70% reduction in deaths in the last 30 years. Britain has amongst the very best health & safety record but is not complacent. There are still 200 deaths each year, 28,000 seriously hurt and 2 million workers hurt. Asbestos kills 4000 per year. Work related ill-health is a major problem. What is needed is refinement and improvement but not radical overhaul. There should be a common sense approach based on common goals. Whilst I think that it is true that since the Health & Safety at Work Act in 1974 there have been huge improvements in safety, because we no longer have a large industrial manufacturing and mining sectors anymore then a significant reduction in deaths would have happened anyway.

Graham spoke next; I must admit that I had only been vaguely aware of the “Local Better Regulation Office”. Putting aside any comparisons to “Yes Minister” and its fictional “Department of Administrative Affairs” its aim is to advise ministers on reducing “unnecessary” regulations. There are some 200 British and EU regulations on safety. Many people present at the conference are naturally suspicious that this could result in voluntary rather than statutory regulation of health & Safety. Graham claimed this is not so and that the aim was better regulation of high risk employers not “light touch” deregulation. Companies also currently waste around £140 million per year on advice from health & Safety consultants which they could have got for free from the HSE/Local Authority Inspectors.

Louise spoke movingly about the death of her brother in 2006 who was electrocuted at work. I would urge everyone to read her speech here at the CCA site. Several times during her very eloquent message she struggled to contain her emotions but she carried on. It was also a hard hitting; factual account about inadequate and inappropriate enforcement, unacceptable delays a judicial process which often resulted in derisory penalties. Somebody wiser than me once said: “the world is a dangerous place, not because “those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.” So, we call upon those responsible for enforcement to stop looking on”.

Sitting next to her was of course Judith Hackitt. Sitting next to me was a Mother and Father who had also lost their son while at work.

During the Q&A I asked Judith why she said that an 80% success rate for HSE prosecutions was “about right” and if it was more than this it would mean that the HSE was being too safe. While Graham had said that Local Authority prosecutions had a 95% success rate. Didn’t this indicate that the Local authorities were too safe and not taking enough prosecutions? Apparently not, HSE and Local authority prosecutions of the same law are in someway “different” (hmmm).

There was an interesting discussion about the IOD/HSE guidance for Directors. It is a voluntary code but the key actions are legal duties.

After a rather hostile question was put to Judith and Graham, a national safety officer from GMB (I didn’t hear his name) did thank Judith for turning up to such a meeting, to face the music which I thought was a fair point and pretty much everyone agreed.

After coffee we had Tory MP Andrew Selous, Shadow Minister, Work and Pensions. He thanked the CCA for being the only NGO that monitors workplace deaths. He attacked the false allegations made against the HSE by the tabloid press. To my astonishment he even attacked the “Daily Torygraph” for printing an untruthful story about choir boys being banned from pancake races for health & safety reasons. He then called the paper “shameful” for refusing to print a rebuttal. Andrew pointed out that there had been a crossbench consensus on Health & Safety and that it was a Tory government that brought in the 1974 Act. He supported the recent Health & Safety offences bill not least because he did not want decent companies undercut by rogue firms. He expressed concern about the reduction in the number of HSE inspectors and put forward a suggestion that companies should be forced to publish information relating to the health & safety record in their annual accounts.

Well, I never....however, before getting too carried away with this new generation of One Nation Tories I should have reminded Andrew of the bile that his own leader David Cameron came out with during his recent conference speech attacking the "health and safety and human rights culture". Same old Tories?

Next was Neil Hope-Collins from the trade union Prospect who is the HSE branch Chair. Neil is a HSE inspector but was speaking (in front of his boss) in a union capacity.

He quoted Gordon Brown from his 2003 speech that “Safety at work, is, as it should be, the mark of a civilised society” then “judge not by your words but by your actions” (from 2005 Batman film – who said inspectors don’t have a sense of humour). He thinks that the HSE “model” as set up by Robbins in 1972 still “works” but Neil is rightly concerned about the rock bottom morale at the HSE. A large number of staff has left, leading to fewer investigations and pro-active inspections. Low pay means that there is a skill gap in the HSE since so many experienced inspectors have left. It takes 5 years to become a fully trained inspector. Enforcement is needed to challenge employer’s indifference and apathy. Good intentions are useless. Safety reps should be the “eyes and ears” of the HSE.

The final morning speaker was Steve Tombs, who is the Chair of CCA. Steve is a former butcher and construction worker who is now a Professor of Sociology in Liverpool. Steve takes no prisoners. He’s not all that keen on Geoffrey Podger, the HSE CEO. Now in the past I have had a few differences of opinion myself with “Geoff”. So I can understand where he is coming from.

Steve spoke about a recent report called “A Crisis in Enforcement”. How people were in fact more likely to suffer “violence” (as in physical harm not from physical assault) while at work rather than violence or harm outside work. He believes that there is an employer accountability gap. Despite this problem there has been a huge fall in HSE inspectors and enforcement action. Investigations into reported injuries are also down, with many serious injuries not being investigated.

It is inconceivable to imagine that if someone lost an eye or a limb in a fight or traffic accident in Liverpool city centre that the Police would refuse to investigate it. Yet if someone loses an eye or leg in a work related “accident” usually the HSE will not investigate.

Steve argued that “targeting” sends out the wrong message and risk based regulation leads to less regulation for business and less protection for workers.

After lunch we had an unexpected lively and interactive presentation from the Greater Manchester Coroner, Nigel Meadows. He is not what you expect a Crown Coroner to be. I completely failed his video quiz on what witnesses see or don’t see in a game of basketball (I say no more).

Unite national officer Rob Miguel and CCA director David Bergman presented reports that comprehensively showed that many (if not most) local authorities are failing to carry out their health and safety responsibilities.

Solicitor Colin Ettinger reported on research that examined fatalities amongst migrant workers and was able to demonstrate disproportionate death rates, particularly of Polish construction workers.

Hugh Robertson, the TUC (and formerly UNISON) senior health & safety advisor (& HSE Board member) reminded everyone that we should be concerned not only about safety but ill-health at work. Often if someone loses their hearing during the course of their employment it is obviously difficult to record and pin down this serious injury as an “accident”. Funny enough today, in Forest Gate I noticed a workman making a repair to the road using a really loud hammer drill using no obvious ear protection at all. He was a young bloke who will probably be deaf or hard of hearing by the time he is 50. What should or could I have done about this?

The conference finished with presentations on Corporate Manslaughter by Steven Summer from the Local Government Employers and Julian Topping from NHS employers. It would seem that both groups of employers are finally getting their act together with regard to health and safety.

We will wait and see. But interestingly my interpretation of their presentations is that greater management interest and involvement has been driven by the threat of enforcement action against them personally. The Corporate Manslaughter legislation has not worried them as much as the prospect of personal imprisonment due to the upgrading of health & safety offenses from fines to porridge. I think it is early days but there is a message somewhere.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Councillor John Gray (grayee)?

Well, I’ve finally done it. I’ve submitted my name as a hopeful applicant to be selected as a Labour Party candidate for the 2010 Council elections in Newham.

The Regional Labour Party probably dreads the selection process for borough’s such as Newham since many, many members also feel driven to declare that they feel that there is a Councillors baton in their municipal kitbag.

The process is that you inform your local (CLP) secretary who informs the General Committee (GC), who informs the secretary of the Local Government Committee (LGC) who informs the regional Party. There is an inevitable form to fill out and then there will be a selection panel (composed of the Party “Great and Good” who are not from Newham).

If you are selected then you will have to be further selected by a quorate ward meeting that will vote to adopt you as their candidate. Of course then you have to be elected as Councillor by the public in the real elections!

A long and windy road.

Let’s see what happens. We need to get this selection process sorted as soon as possible and then successful candidates can start (or if already in post - continue) canvassing and campaigning.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Suitcase Kindertransport – 70th Anniversary Play London Liverpool Street

“On 2nd December 1938, the first Jewish child refugees from Nazi‐occupied Europe arrived in Britain, at the start of what became known as the Kindertransport. Over a period of eighteen months more than 9,500 children – mostly Jewish but including 2000 children of Hitler’s political opponents – were saved from almost certain death. Very few ever saw their parents or extended families again. Many of these children passed through London’s Liverpool Street Station on their way to their final destinations across Britain”

I never knew this. I use London Liverpool Street two or three times a week. Last night coming back from my UNISON branch meeting in central London. I have also occasionally walked (or rather rushed) past those cast statues of children opposite McDonalds and had always meant to but never did, go over and find out what they were all about. I now see that they remember the Kindertransport children as well.

While saving 9,500 kids lives is obviously something to celebrate you will also think of the hundreds of thousands who were not saved and murdered, many in even a more brutal and sadistic manner than even Baby P.

On Tuesday 2 December there will be a free "original mix of site specific theatre and music" to mark the anniversary - 10.30, 1pm and 7.30pm. See pdf flyer above left. Click to enlarge.

I’ll try and attend one of the performances on Tuesday. It’s not often you have live music and theatre in a railway station, although at times there is plenty of drama.

This event is “generously sponsored by the German Embassy”. Personally I am very pleased that they are and think it is appropriate. I can understand that some may differ.

Update: Pictures of statues and new report Feb 2011 here

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Sanford Jacoby - Sunny California to the Roman Road.

Last week I was interviewed by UCLA Professor, Sanford (Sandy) Jacoby. Sandy’s “field of interest is US Business, economic, and Labor history”. He is investigating British Pension funds as part of his research for a new book and has interviewed a number of “usual suspects” in the so far relatively small UK union capital stewardship world.

I really enjoyed the interview. It is not that often (in fact far too rare) that you have open and honest, purposeful, out of the box conversation about what is to you really interesting and important stuff. It wasn’t only a one way conversation since I learnt lots of fascinating information about what is going on in America and what how this may relate to the UK.

My basic understanding is that in the States, trade unions are far more organised with regard to Capital Stewardship than in the UK but have very limited legal rights under company law. While in the UK we have far more legal rights (in theory) but are far, far less organised.

My previous experience of being interviewed by Professors was not always a particularly pleasant one when I was an undergraduate (many, many moons ago). Since we didn’t always see eye to eye on the importance of such things as attending early morning lectures, preparing for tutorials and submitting essays on time.

See this article about Sandy’s research. The big American Car giants have just received huge Federal loans. However, Sandy points out that the blame for the near collapse of traditional US car makers lies not with the workers but with its senior executives. They decided to plough the profits they made in the good times into share buybacks and increased dividends rather than reinvestment ($20 billion in 1980’s).

Companies such as General Motors (GM) failed to invest in research, new models and alternative technology. Toyota in a conscious decision at the time didn’t use its money in this way; they invested in research and alternatives while still looking after their shareholders and are now reaping the benefits.

What interests me is why GM executives (and their professional financial advisers) made this completely destructive decision? Is it just too simplistic to say that the owners of companies such Toyota are more interested in the sustainability of long term profits and therefore made sure that their company executives followed this line? While GM owners handed responsibility to traders who were only concerned with short term gains and ensured that GM executives were also incentivised by short term bonuses. (This is my interpretation of Sandy’s article). This resulted in gas guzzlers piling up unsold in GM dealers while Toyota exports its hybrids around the world.

The London weather was not particularly nice but is was dry. Sandy asked me whether he could take a different route back to the underground station. I suggested walking back via the former Bryant & May buildings where the famous Matchgirls strike of 1888 took place. Sandy, a Labour Movement historian knew of this strike and was pleased to be walking past this site. He mentioned that he thought the whole of the East End was just full of historical buildings, places and monuments important to the history of the Labour movement.

Yes, but it takes a visitor to make us remember this.

Monday, November 24, 2008

London Biennial Conference (III) - Housing Workshop, Ken, Motions and Election Results

This is the last post on the London Labour Party conference held on Saturday. Life moves on rapidly nowadays. Who would have guessed on Saturday we would now be celebrating an income tax increase for the rich! Lovely stuff, better late than never.

Lunch was provided by Newham Labour group, many thanks for a nice curry and glass of wine. Nothing too good for the workers. In the queue I met properly for the first time Hackney Councillor and well known Labour blogger Luke Akehurst. We both agreed that it is a bit strange to come across folk in person that you have only met electronically beforehand.

I forgot to return the conference workshop forms in time so I had been put down to attend the Contact Creator workshop. Now this is an important campaigning tool but I am already due to attend training so I bunked off to go to the “London Housing in the Election” workshop. This was being run by Cllr Jamie Carswell, Deputy Mayor of Hackney. Joanne Milligan chaired. Also present was Paul Stone Deputy Leader of Islington Labour group. The heroine of the hour, new Tower Hamlets Councillor and diss-respect slayer, Rachel Saunders was there with Labour NEC member and employment rights lawyer, Ellie Reeves.

Housing had been a key London issue of the conference so far, mentioned by most speakers. The fear is that Boris is road testing for the national Tories in London. As Robin Wales had said already, don’t believe what he says; look at what he actually does.

Jamie is also the “London Councils” lead on Housing. The major concern about Boris is that he has ditched the 50% target for social housing in all London new build schemes. Boris has also increased the eligibility for access to subsidised shared ownership to those with an income of £72,000 pa (from £60,000?). Possibly even worse Boris has cancelled the vital infrastructure projects such as the DLR extension to Barking and the Thames Gateway Bridge. What this means is that Barking is still supposed to have been identified as an area of housing growth but what is the point of building more housing if there is no transport infrastructure for residents to get to work. Doesn’t Boris understand the concept of “joined up thinking?

The most graceless thing of course by our so called “London Mayor” is his proposal that 45% of all social housing should be built in the 9 Labour boroughs which have only 27% of the population. Gerrymandering or what? Effectively, what this mean is that Tory boroughs will only allow private housing developments and will try and export their “poor” (and God forbid potential Labour voters) to Labour boroughs. It had been pointed out many times that Boris is surrounding himself with advisers associated with the very wicked former Tory leader of Westminster Council, Shirley Porter. The Tories obviously also believe that social housing is tenure of the last resort and the desperate. So out of sight out of mind?

Interestingly Jamie reminded us that the horrible term “Social Housing” was invented by one Michael Heseltine. Jamie prefers the term “Public housing” which I think is far better (even though in the States it has similar negative contentions to social housing – but there you go).

There was other interesting stuff on Boris, such as he is including rebuild in his 50,000 new homes target (so if he knocks down 50,000 homes in the next 4 years and only builds 50,000 new ones then he will have still reached his target); the impact of “gated communities” (communities???), the Warwick 2 housing statement (level playing field for Councils and RSLs), shortage of family seized housing units, HMOs, managing areas were there are more than one public housing landlord.

There was a bit of cut and thrust in the Q&A. While the future of Council Housing is of course still very important it has to be recognised that a significant percentage of housing stock in London has been transferred (30-35%?) or built by RSLs so we have to take this on board. We must make sure that we are pursuing policies that ensure that such new (and old) public housing landlords are being held to account.

I made a suggestion that while there are some very good RSL public housing landlords there are some very, very bad ones. One solution would be for Labour councillors and party members to join the boards of such landlords to drive up standards. Landlords who treat their residents badly will also treat their staff with similar disdain. Councillors also need to call rogue landlords to account in their boroughs. This is an issue that needs exploring further.

There was a very poplar suggestion that all empty homes should have their council tax increased the longer they remained empty and Paul Smith (deputy leader of Islington Labour Group) came up with a very good idea about organising a petition against Boris getting rid of the 50% target.

Afterwards was Ken Livingstone's speech which went down very well. Ken was on form. He thanked the Labour Party for the magnificent effort that everyone put in during the GLA election. He led in all but 4 London boroughs which puts paid to the ES lie that he was the Zone 1 mayor. It was the collapse of the Lib Dem vote that caused most problems. Ken sincerely hoped that people would not take this out on Brian Paddock by voting him out of “I’m a Celebrity”. Since Boris had cancelled the congestion charge on Porches et al in central London, he now has a financial “black hole” to fill – so watch out ordinary Londoners.

Next we debated resolutions on health & safety and housing. There were also emergency motions on Boris cancelling transport schemes, Post offices POCA contracts and windfall taxes. I spoke, so did UNISON delegates Gloria Hanson and Rae Voller.

The election results were very interesting. West Ham Alan Griffiths lost to Luke Akehurst. Check out Luke’s post (and take) on these results.

Most of the conference then seemed to decamp to the nearby Edward VII pub where over a pint or three the world was properly put to rights and a good time was had by all.

David Cameron's School Boy Errors Exposed!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

London Labour Biennial Conference (II)

Gareth Thomas, MP, (good Welsh name) Minister for Trade, Investment and Consumer Affairs gave a cracking speech while giving fraternal greetings from the Co-op Party.

Outside the hall, the Co-op stall was also giving away free bottles of Fair Trade wine with every membership form filled out!

He posed the question - would Northern Rock have crashed or would the Halifax (HBOS) been forced into a merger if they had remained mutually owned? (Of course not)

Not that long ago I was told that those of us who are interested in the concepts of owner citizens and capital stewardship in investments were the “New Rochdale Pioneers”. Which, if accurate, would be a tremendous honour and responsibility. Gareth left a wonderful image of what it was like when the Tories were last in power, when many school buildings were kept aloft only by the woodworms holding hands.

There was then an open Q&A of the panel. I asked whether or not they agreed that one reason for the current credit crunch was due to a failure of ownership and governance by pension and insurance funds. There was a failure to ensure that their money was not misused by those we employed to look after it. Instead it was invested in schemes that no one really under the risk and resulted in us being ripped off by executives motivated by short term bonuses.

Now that was “sort of” the question I had written on my crib card. But to be honest I didn’t actually put it over that well. Tessa Jowell MP answered by saying that she thought that there had been a failure of regulation and transparency rather than anything else. She also thought that due to this there would be a change for ever in the relationship between the regulators and the financial services industry.

Tony McNulty MP, very carefully, said that once the current crisis was over then the government will have to look again at what needed to be changed. However, he did think that there had been a failure of governance not government which needed looking at. But he thought that my “gentile dig” at the government for causing the problems was wrong.

I am pretty sure that I did not get my point over properly and possibly there was confusion over Government and Governance. I wasn't having a dig. But so what - any undertaking to look at regulation, transparency and governance of financial services will be good enough for me.

London MEP Claude Moreas reminded us all that the European Union was important to Londoners. Soon 1.3 million Londoners who work for agencies will soon have significant extra employment rights and protections thanks to the EU. This only happens since there is a small majority of MEPs in the EU who believe in progressive politics. This can change in future elections. There are more MEPs belonging to fascist or racist political parties than black MEPs.

Next year the top priority must be the European elections in June and we need to explain to Londoners why this election is important and relevant.

Andrew Dismore MP gave a Parliamentary report and mentioned the 10 (repeat 10) social housing homes built in Tory Barnet Council last year.

John Biggs, London Assembly member, deputy GLA labour Group leader (and “attack dog”) gave a typically good humoured and thoughtful speech. Boris being described by John as a “vacuous bag of wind” being one of my favourite moments.

Finally Jules Pipe, elected Major of Hackney gave a very confident and lucid report on the problems facing the 9 Labour London Boroughs and our role in “London Councils” as well as the huge social housing problems we face across London.

Next was lunch then workshops.

To be continued.

Photo Dan McCurry

Saturday, November 22, 2008

London Labour Party Biennial Conference 2008

The conference was in the historical Old Town Hall in Stratford, Newham, E15 so I was able to walk there from home this morning enjoying the blue skies, cold fresh air and winter sunshine.

I was there as a member of the UNISON Labour Link delegation. We had a delegation meeting first where we discussed motions and whether we should support them or not and who should try and speak on motions from the conference floor.

The morning session of the conference was dominated by speakers, reports and Q&A’s. The afternoon had workshops, “our Ken” and Resolution debates, finishing up with the internal regional election results.

I’m not going to try and give a “full report” on the conference. Rather, a snapshot of some of the stuff I personally found interesting, usually from my own particular trade union perspective. A health warning is that this post is based on my hurried and often illegible scribbled notes.

Ken Clark, London regional director of the Labour Party brought us all into order (eventually, a Labour Party meeting of any kind is loath to start on time). The main hall of the Town Hall was pretty full with delegates. I assume about 300 plus people? Len Duvall, Chair of London Labour Party (and GLA Labour leader) chaired the conference. He had been re-elected Chair unopposed. From my hurried squiggles I note that he pointed out that this was not a time for the London Party to be sending out mixed messages; Labour in power makes a huge difference to people’s lives and we should never forget this; in the recent GLA elections despite the loss of the mayor we actually polled more votes than in the past and we had support in inner and outer London. Labour represents all of London.

The first main speaker was Sir Robin Wales, the directly elected Mayor of Newham who welcomed delegates to smell the fresh air of a Tory free Newham (there are no Tory or Liberal Democrat opposition councillors in Newham). He reminded everyone of the Labour history of Newham and this very Town Hall. It was at this very place that Keir Hardy was elected as the first ever Labour MP in 1892. The balcony overlooking the High Street that we had all walked past to get in the hall was were Keir gave his victory speech.

The first ever Labour Council was elected in West Ham, Newham has the largest Labour majority in the Country. London as well as the “North”, has its Labour heartlands. Robin was very, very direct about his opinion about Galloway’s Respect (no comment). He also warned the conference about Boris and that we should judge him on what he does rather than what he says. This was a common theme from the day.

Harriet Harman MP (and deputy leader), reminded the conference that the Labour Government had indeed paid off debt in the past so now was in a better position to deal with present problems. While in the past you had to believe in prudence, now it is prudent to be bold. Labour in the current economic difficulties will not be saying unlike the Tories “if it isn’t hurting, it isn’t working” or that unemployment is “a price worth paying”. Traditional Labour values are about fairness and equality. She also noted that all London Tory MPs are white.

Next was an unopposed Conference Arrangements report (standing orders committee) followed by Guest speakers.

First was Tessa Jowell MP, Minister for the Olympics, who started her speech by mentioning that on route to Stratford today, the Jubilee Line had been partly closed. If Ken had still been in charge of Transport of London, this of course would never have happened! (Joke) She also said that the last time she had been at a London Biennial conference in 2006 she never thought that she would be present when Labour had nationalised the commanding heights of the British economy! (Joke – if somewhat true). Tessa pointed out that 75p in every £ spent on the Olympics would be spent on regeneration. 8,000 jobs will be created in the newly built Stratford Olympic shopping centre alone while 10% of the current 3,000 construction jobs are recruited locally from the unemployed.

Tony McNulty MP, Minister for London, Employment and Welfare Reform was next. He argued that some were overdoing the “doom and gloom”. The Tories are proving themselves not to be serious politicians. Cameron is very like “Strictly Come Dancing” Star, John Sergeant, (I can’t remember exactly why but it seemed applicable at the time and got a good cheer from conference). Tony reminded everyone about a fundamental difference between the Labour Party and the Tories – you would not get anyone in Labour “singing in the bath” about market cruelty. He also accused Boris of imitating disgraced Tory Westminster Politician Shirley Porter, for trying to use housing policy to gerrymander elections. Finally, he reminded everyone that if the election of Barack Obama taught us anything the last thing this country needed is an Old Etonion as our Prime Minister.

Good stuff - I’ll post on the rest of conference tomorrow.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Trade Unions and Workers’ Capital Stewardship

On Thursday I went to Congress House for an informal meeting of National trade union pension/Capital Stewardship officers, trade union staff pension trustees and lay pension trustees and nominated representatives.

The TUC pension policy officers organise these meetings and the aim is to try and establish a forum for trade unionists who are interested in the investment of workers capital.

We discussed the possible co-ordination of union staff pension funds, the implications for capital stewardship of the financial crisis (very interesting!), other campaigning activities, report on the Committee for Workers Capital (CWC) AGM and future framework for the forum.

There was broad agreement from those present that it would be a good idea to work together on particular issues. Of course, this is an informal forum with no decision making function but I felt that we were making real progress and that there is the opportunity for greater co-ordination and co-operation in the future between affiliates. Which I think would be great but will obvious depend on affiliates being persuaded that this is something that will be in the interests of their members.

With the current financial “crisis”, there has never been in my view a more favourable environment for Union capital stewardship activists to try and persuade their unions that this is in their membership’s interests to get on board. We need in my view to stop the financial services industry in the future using our money to enrich themselves and rip us off. The best way of doing this is enable the real owners of capital to make sure that the companies they own are run in the interests of its owners and stakeholders not its the financial interests of its transient management.

It won’t be easy and we need to organise to win, to change things, not just to protest, but this s a “Seize the moment” comrades. So go for it!

Victory to Labour at Mile End East – Galloway well beaten into 3rd place by Tories

Just (00.44) got the result via text from the Council By-election at Mile End East, Tower Hamlets, London. Labour Candidate, Rachel Saunders and local Party activists slaughtered the opposition. Lab 1208, diss-Respect 604, Con 630 and Lib Dem 110. I don’t know the turnout but I suspect it was high for a Council by-election. This is a very good result for the Labour Party, a clear victory.

Despite the national economic problems, Rachel got roughly twice as many votes as Galloway’s Respect and the Tories. These are the published 2006 Council election results. It’s a bit complicated (actually very) to compare since in 2006 the Ward returned 2 Labour and one Respect Councillors. But since then the Respect Councillor (who was also a SWP member) has defected to the Tories and the current Respect Candidate (playing community politics it would appear) actually stood as an independent last time against Respect and Labour. He only marginally increased his vote as a Respect candidate compared to that as an independent, which I think indicates the true level of poplar support for the ultra left brand of Galloway’s Respect (less than 100 voters or so per ward).

I was very impressed with the way that the local Party had organised the campaign. I started off with a team of keen and enthusiastic Labour Society students from local university, Queen Mary (see photo with local MP Jim Fitzpatrick). Then later on I fell in with my West Ham CLP compatriots, John & John, in a canvass team headed by Rachel’s Husband! We were knocking on the doors of “Labour promises”, who were people who had indicated they were Labour supporters but had so far not voted according to the polling agents.

I canvassed mostly the “East End Homes” blocks in Southern Grove, Bow (next to where I use to work in the UNISON office). We went round and around these blocks trying to catch supporters and remind them to vote! The only sign of the opposition I saw was one strangely “suited and booted” respect canvass team (with Green rosettes) who appeared to be having some sort of stand up row between themselves near English Street. Things were probably pretty fraught for all political activists tonight. The polls closed at 10pm and we were still “knocking people up” at 9.45pm. Afterwards we went for a fairly well earned beer and curry in Brick Lane (photo). I assume they are still celebrating in Brick Lane even now as I type and, why not, well done everyone, especially Rachel.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

What's Going Wrong in the UUL?

On the way out of the really good UNISON National Housing seminar last week, a London comrade was handing out this leaflet (or something similar) to delegates outside the Hotel. He told Alan and I that he didn't think we would be interested in attending this event. We asked for a copy. He gave us each the colour leaflet rather reluctantly. I don't know why?

Of course, the vast overwhelming majority of trade union members and activists would not , dream of attending such a thing. However, if they are not breaking union rules (a big if for some), and if UNISON United Left (UUL) want to organise these sort of things then "Bring on the Clowns" I say!

This Circus is not an "official" UNISON event and no branch resources should be spent on it. Click on flyer to view properly.

Hat tip - comrade Mercader

Alan Griffiths for London Labour Party Regional Board

Alan is a top UNISON activist, a fellow Housing officer and West Ham CLP comrade who is standing for the London Labour Party Regional Board. The election will take place at the Biannual conference this Saturday at Stratford Town Hall. Alan is standing against a certain well known blogger from Hackney who thinks Alan is a "good" person (Er, no, not Dave).

This is from Alan's nomination address.

The third term of Labour Government is uncharted history.

We’ve a lot of hard thinking and work to do to win a fourth term. I’m proud of what we’ve achieved. I believe that the electorate want to be convinced that we can protect and support them through this period of rising food and energy prices and can deliver the next new agenda.

They will want to know that we can continue the tremendous success of the Labour Government’s Economic policies. They will want to know that they will expect to benefit, and that new opportunities will open without undue risks.

In the last 3 to 5 years, we have had a succession of reminders that London is the most right-wing of the big cities. Despite the surge in Tory votes in their safest areas this May and losing the Mayor of London, the detailed figures from the counts do not show many Labour MPs loosing on the 1 May 2008 results. We need to face up to where we are fairly and squarely if we are to improve our vote it in time for the London Borough elections in May 2010 and win the fourth General election victory. Let’s do that.

Effective Campaigning

· I have been involved in about half of the Council By-elections in these nineteen constituencies.
· I was the agent in West Ham for the 2005 General Election, seeing off the waves of outside campaigners bussed in by Respect / Socialist Workers Party. In 2008, our vote was up locally.
· Interviewed on TV and Radio on subjects from Crime to Labour's Membership to Abandoned and Untaxed vehicles.
· I’ve been the person who has promoted computerised electioneering, targeted mailings and worked out delivery rounds in my constituency.
· West Ham has a Voice Over Internet phone bank, which allows multiple canvassers to use just one BT landline.
· I am the Labour Link Officer of UNISON in Waltham Forest, with the most delegates to CLPs of any UNISON Branch in London.
· I am Newham membership officer of the Co-operative Party and on the North London Party Council

Newham - leading the way

· We set out to be "Best in Class" before the Labour Government was elected, and were a Best Value pilot for everything.
· Staying in School at 16 is above the English average, despite low incomes. And so is entry to Higher Education.
· Our 12 hour, 5 day Call Centre on 020 8430 2000 offers the front-line service for all the Council's responsibilities. It has been widely copied.
· I played a leading role in getting the first agency agreement for Newham Council to enforce against untaxed vehicles as agent for the Driver and Vehicle Licensing agency, also widely copied.
· And we’ve won the International Station and the Olympic Games, which will also do wonders for neighbouring Boroughs.

The People's Priorities

· Serious improvements to public transport are now in place or on site and people are seeing the results. We must ensure that the Labour regime that began this unprecedented investment gets credit for it.
· Crime remains at he top of public concerns, but it would be only too easy for Labour to fail to get the credit for all the now powers and techniques we have made available and put to use.
· Health needs long-term investment, training and management improvements - the Tories can't be trusted, the Liberals don’t know what long-term means.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

UNISON London Regional Commitee – Calls to Nationalise the Banks and Grown Up Politics.

This morning I went to our regional committee meeting in Hugh Parry Hall, which is just around the corner from the UNISON HQ in Mabledon Place (and Camden Town Hall).

This is a business meeting of the regions elected lay representatives and the full time senior management team. My role there is as the lay regional Finance Convenor and I have to present the Finance report. Some of the stuff we discussed is confidential, other stuff I can report back on.

Good news about recruitment. It appears that the introduction of full time local area organisers is already making a difference. Early days yet, but most (not all branches) find it very difficult to run effective ongoing recruitment campaigns because they are simply overloaded with responsibilities and fire fighting emergencies. Dedicated and focused organisers are, I think, a God send to hard pressed branches.

The well received regional initiative on computer memory sticks will be extended by making sure that all new stewards who attend training will get one. Data on the stick includes links to key website addresses and templates, flyers, PowerPoint presentations for inductions, guides to producing newsletters etc. I think this is a really good initiative which is being looked at by other UNISON regions. The cost of the memory sticks is also being brought down.

On Pay – Local government NJC is with ACAS, 2.45% paid on account pending arbitration. In Scotland they have just accepted a 2 year deal of 3% and 2.5%. In Further Education members have accepted a 3.3% offer. Probation has just accepted a 2 years deal (I didn’t note details). OFSTED are undertaking a 3rd wave of industrial action short of strike action. The Meat Hygiene Service is balloting on a 3 day strike and in Health we have submitted evidence to the Pay Review body to trigger a review in cost of living.

NHS Restructuring – NHS London has started consultation on future provision of trauma centres and reconfiguration of PCTs.

Pension Governance – there will be a regional briefing in January 2009.

Service Group Liaison – A private sector seminar planned for Saturday 14 March 2009 (I must try and attend).

Race Action Plan Working Group – The Challenging Racism Project Plan will be re-launched starting with 5 branches across all service groups.

Equalities Seminar – was held on 22 October and was well received, the only criticism being that the say should be longer to enable delegates to attend more workshops.

Campaign against the Far Right – The region continues to work with both Unite against Fascism and Searchlight. It supports members in the GLA following the election of Barnbrook. Now focusing on European elections where the fascists think they can win in London and the North West.

Labour Link – working with TULO (Trade Unions Labour Liaison Organisation) also focusing on European elections, and the borough elections in 2010.

Regional Policy Day – A very good day (check this post).

Branch and Regional Structures Review – a new branch assessment process will come into effect in January 2009.

O&A Sessions in Regional Council – decisions by elected Regional Council Officers (including yours truly!) announced at start.

Next was my Finance report which today was for “noting” only. It was as usual pretty boring. When I attempted to explain the decision by the Regional Finance Team to spend £3,300 on purchasing materials for use in future strike activity, I itemised the materials bought as barricade building kits; Molotov cocktails; gas masks; hand guns, AK-47’s, portable guillotine etc – but no one was listening.

We had reports from the NEC and a discussion about the next regional Council meeting on 9 December. We then discussed the only motion received for debate at the council meeting, called “Global Financial Crisis”. There had been one other similar LOB motion CALLING, SUPPORTING and DEMANDING which had been thankfully ruled out of order for being clearly outside rule.

Our job at the regional committee was to discuss whether or not this motion should be supported and if we should recommend amendments. I was really pleased that we had a fair exchange of views and debate on this issue and in the end the right decision was made (i.e. the forces of light and reason won).

The main controversial issue (not the only one) was a call in the motion for the permanent Nationalisation of the Banks. While in the past such motions would have just been supported without comment since the silent majority of UNISON members were not represented on such committees or the few reps that did attend often felt it was pointless to argue against such nonsense since the motion would just be ignored in any case.

Today, I was pleased to see committee members argue that nationalising the banks is just meaningless words and gestures which means nothing to our members who are actually facing the consequences of the financial crisis.

I argued that nationalising the Banks is not the answer; I didn’t think that civil servants would make a better job of running Banks than the whiz-kids who have just mucked them up. Instead the major reason for the crisis was a failure of ownership and regulation. Nationalising the Banks (who the state arguably now own big chunks already) means nationalising our members pensions and insurance policies. What went wrong was that owners of capital (me and you) were not allowed to exercise our rights and responsibility of this ownership. Our money was misused and abused in the interests of short term personal bonuses by the people we employed supposedly to look after it.

One member of the committee spoke movingly about his own personal experience in the last financial crisis when he lost his home due to repossession and that this motion is just empty words which would have meant nothing to him during that painful time.

After this, we had a series of good reports from, self-organised groups, young members, sub-committees and Labour Link, but I’m all “blogged” out and can’t face any more typing.

Still, a very good meeting and many thanks to Gloria (and Conroy) for chairing it.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Fighting the Good Fight in Mile End East

After the Forest Gate South coffee morning with West Ham MP, Lyn Brown, I drove over to Tower Hamlets to help out in the by-election in Mile End East (vote this Thursday). The Labour Party candidate is Rachel Saunders and I had been told to make my way to the Burdett Estate.

I drove along St Paul’s Way looking for Labour canvass teams. Opposite St Paul’s school was the Gorgeous One himself, standing on the pavement shouting into a megaphone surrounded by about half a dozen of his diss-respect acolytes. They were huddled around him trying to hand out leaflets to an empty street.

I slowed down and opened the car window to try and listen what he was going on about. I could not make out any coherent statements only incredibly loud ear piercing electronic feedback noises interwoven with occasional barely recognisable grunts. You could not make out the sentences but it seemed to be all about being aggressive, bombastic, bullying and threatening. You could imagine him sneering “We are keeping an eye on you, we know where you live”. What was amazing was how seriously he was taking all this. He appeared to think he was on a podium addressing a packed rally - shaking his arm up and down while vigorously pointing his finger at an audience of no-one. I thought it was all quite symbolic. A little man in the true sense of the word living on supposed past glories in denial of reality.

The rag bag of supporters gathered around him (nearly all white and male) should have been out on the “knocker” talking to local people and trying to persuade them to support their candidate.

I wondered what the SWP would have made of this when they had been in charge of respect. At least they had the sense to know that such prancing about is no substitute for organised and systematic canvassing. Of course, their belief that such actions were furthering the revolution was equally as deluded as George who believed that diss-respect would replace the Labour Party.

I soon joined up with Labour canvass teams. There was a really good turn out by local members and Councillors. I was sent to join a team which included Rachel herself; Council Leader Lutfur Rahman, A M Ohid Ahmed, Alibor Choudhury, Marc Francis, Shiria Khatun and UNISON member Cllr Sirajul Islam with his 9 year old daughter (get them while they are young). Councillor Carli Harper-Penman was out and about with London Assembly member, John Biggs.

From the top of the blocks you could look around and see small groups of Labour Party canvassers wandering around the estate. There was even a balloon stall. Interestingly I saw no Tory canvassers at all. It may appear that the local Tories have something in common with Galloway and don’t want to support former SWP associates?

The canvass itself I thought went well. It was somewhat surprising (I say no more) that some voters said they had been told that the respect candidate was also the Labour Party candidate?

For the first hour or so I could still hear the whine in the distance of the Respect megaphone. Eventually it died away so peace and quiet resumed. Who knows what when people stir up community politics and hatreds, but I have no doubt that eventually diss-respect will also fade away and become yet another weird and wonderful footnote in extremist east end politics.

Meet outside Mile End Tube (there is only one obvious entry/exist) 6pm tomorrow, 2pm and 6pm Wednesday. People wanted all day Thursday. Contact

Sunday, November 16, 2008

MP wants to see constituents bleed – health checks at West Ham Tea/Coffee morning

Yesterday I helped out our MP, Lyn Brown, at her “Coffee/Tea Morning” event at Forest Gate.

It was held in the fairly new Council building in Woodgrange Road near the junction with Romford Road called “The Gate” (the site once of a “Gate” to the start of Epping Forest).

It is a modern day mix of Library, internet cafe and Council services (One Stop Shop), all under one roof.

We had a room at the back. Lyn and her parliamentary team had invited local people in the Forest Gate South ward to attend this event to discuss the provision of health services. Lyn had also arranged with the local NHS PCT to provide a health team to take people's blood pressures, check for diabetes, height and weight checks (health MOT) etc.

Normally, local Councillors are present but there was an “away day” for all Labour Councillors in Newham, so party members were helping out taking details of any local case work for councillors to follow up.

One of the local Party members who turned up to help used to be my former head of HR many moons ago! We are now of course (as always) very good comrades. My own GP also came in (he had heard about it at the local newsagent). Even though he has been my GP for the best part of 20 years (ish) I did not recognise him even though he recognised me. You know how it is often difficult to recognise people you know well formally when you meet them for the first time in an different environment.

Usually, when I am about to meet him at the real surgery, I am trying desperately beforehand to remember what is the recommended maximum limit for the consumption of alcohol units. Since he always gives me a health check practically every time I see him (unlike most clinics). It doesn’t help that I read once about a GP who said when he asked a patient how much he drank, he always doubled the answer as being nearer the truth.

Anyway, I at least always come away from these events on a high. You can be a little bitter and cynical about politics. These sorts of events, which encourage local people to meet up, discuss problems and get involved with their elected representatives, are I think just brilliant. The provision of health services in our borough is so important. It is equally imperative that electors are able to meet up with their Parliamentary representative to discuss their experience as the consumers of local health services and hold them accountable.

In the afternoon I went off to fight the good fight in Mile End East. I had an encounter with the "evil one" on which I will post later.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Beth Rowley.....LITTLE DREAMER

Off message again, but I have just bought this CD and played it for the first time yesterday (and many times since).

Beth has a simply fantastic voice. Eva Cassidy is an obvious comparison but Beth Rowley’s voice holds her own against the very best I think.

Her singing is just absolutely beautiful.

There is much ugliness in the world that you need to uplift and enrich your spirits from time to time.

Restore the balance.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Children in Need

On the improbable off chance that you don't know how to donate to this worthy cause - click here

Health & Safety in the 21st Century

Today I went to the 4th joint Health & Safety Executive/SERTUC seminar for trade union safety representatives at Congress House.

There were about 250 reps from London and the South East and a pretty high profile panel of speakers.

It was opened by Stephen Williams, the local HSE area Director, then a keynote speech from Judith Hackitt, the Chair of the HSE. Next a Q&A including Lord McKenzie the Minister for Health & Safety and Hugh Robertson (formerly UNISON) from the TUC and non-executive director of the HSE.

There were stalls run by Thompsons solicitors and the HSE. In the workshops that I attended there was two HSE inspectors (one a manager) and a senior Council safety enforcement officer. Considering that many safety reps never meet or speak to a HSE or council safety inspector in their careers, this is pretty good access.

I’ll post now on what I thought was interesting in the speech by Judith Hackitt and I’ll try to post on other matters later. Her speech was entitled “Health & Safety in the 21st Century” while the seminar itself was called “Worker Involvement in Health & Safety”

Judith (right of picture next to Lord McKenzie) was appointed as Chair of the HSE last year for a 5 year term. She had previously been a HSE commissioner. Her background is Chemical Engineering and it was mentioned that in the past she had worked for companies that had been prosecuted by the HSE for safety offences. I’m not sure that is reassuring or not?

Firstly, dare I say a health warning? This report is based on my very hurried and scribbled notes.

Judith started off very well by stressing the importance of safety reps as “absolutely essential” and that she was surprised that we still had to promote the idea to employers of workers involvement nowadays.

The world had changed, there was the emerging and growing SME sector, and we had to face the fact that trade union representation had declined and that many workers had no union protection.

New risks such as bullying, violence and infection control need to be controlled by effective risk assessment (I’m not sure that these are all that new, but in the past they were not properly addressed). The HSE is now willing to consider enforcement action to facilitate safety reps (excellent news). Need to concentrate on supply chains, training and educating employers on the benefits of safety reps.

Since 1974 Britain had been very successful in health & safety and was “amongst the best in the world”. Even so it was still unacceptable that some 200 workers are killed, 28,000 seriously injured and some 2 million hurt every year. Not forgetting the 4,000 who die annually from work related cancer (asbestos).

It is still the overriding principal that it is those “who create the risk that are the best to manage it” (employers). She attacked “jobs worth’s” that use ‘elf & safety” as an excuse not to do things they (bureaucrats) don’t want to do. Instead of trying to stop people being killed they bang on about banning conkers and Pancake Day races. Real health & safety is not about stopping anyone doing their job, it is about making it safer and more efficient. The media should stop its nonsense and tell the real story.

She addressed the trade union call for more safety inspectors. She asked is this the only solution? Since it is logically flawed. The HSE is not responsible for safety, it is managers and employers. There is a question of motivation about safety. Safety needs to be embedded into the culture of companies. The HSE needs to concentrate on high risk employers but there is no question of an exemption for anyone. Duty holders manage the workplace. The HSE should provide them with advice and guidance. Encouraging better and more constructive safety arrangements.

There was a somewhat lively Q&A afterwards. I had the opportunity to try and explain that the reason why trade unions asked for more inspectors is that too many employers don’t take safety issues seriously and for example, either don’t do risk assessments or just employ consultants to write them up and leave them on shelves. We want more inspectors not just to go around prosecuting employers (even though we could do with more of this), they are needed to visit and explain to employers what they should be doing to protect the safety of their workers. That is why we need more of them.

Judith answered that is what the HSE are trying to do, target employers who need advice and guidance. I still don’t understand how they can do this with so few inspectors?

Lord McKenzie took a question on the victimisation of safety reps by employers. One rep present had recently been sacked for safety rep duties. To be fair to Lord McKenzie, he utterly condemned any victimisation, said it was totally unacceptable, even though he did not know the details of this case, he promised to look into it. On his way out he did stop and take details from the reps concerned.

A couple of other points were that the HSE/Councils are compiling a list of rubbish safety consultants. They have also prosecuted consultants in the past for bad practices and are aware of the problem and intend to do something about it. Good!

The second point was a response to a question by another Housing association rep about whether public funding should only be given to organisations that have good health & safety practices (supply chains?). The response from the panel was a suggestion was that this was something that could be taken up with the regulators of these bodies and those responsible for these public funds. Which I will bring up at my branch executive later this month? It makes perfect sense.

Finally, I thought that Judith Hackitt performed well, and she certainly was not savaged the way that I have seen previous Chairs of the HSE been treated at similar conferences. Maybe, its early days mind?

Lord McKenzie was a breath of fresh air as a safety minister. He gave the sincere impression that he genuinely wanted to listen and learn. None of the arrogance you get from some ministers.

I think that the overall message to the unions was that the HSE think safety reps do, by and large, a good job, but that most workers who need protection do not work in unionised workplaces anymore. Where there are unionised workplaces, I think that the HSE have woken up to the fact that safety reps can in theory actually do “their” work as advisers and guide employers. This would free up their time to inspect the workplaces that are not unionised. I think this is what they are saying, and if so, this is potentially a huge opportunity for unions.

Personally, I think for this to work, safety reps need more of an enforcement role (provisional inspection notices?) but this is a change which I think needs to be more widely debated in the trade union movement. It’s a classic “threat” and “opportunity”. There again, while we suffer plenty of threats we don’t that often get all that many opportunities.

UNISONTV - Lobby over State Pension 22 October

Thursday, November 13, 2008

UNISON National Housing Seminar

I had an early start this morning to take the train to Birmingham for this annual seminar on social housing issues. There were over 120 UNISON members from Council housing departments, ALMOs and Housing Associations from all over the UK.

This is UNISON at its very best. Bringing together union members from different regions and employers, arranging top class speakers while encouraging us to make contacts to share good ideas and experiences.

London delegates sat together for the main speeches and presentations. We then went off to workshops (I went to the Housing association one and we came back into the main hall in the afternoon). I’ll try and post separately on the workshops and sessions I attended.

Housing use to be a political backwater, especially so called “social housing”. The cult of “owner occupation” use to mean everything. Any other tenure was considered as 4th rate. Things are changing.

During lunch time I sat at a table with Edinburgh Council UNISON members, one of whom use to work for the Citizen Rights Office where I first started my “career” in housing. There had also been some confusion during registration since I was listed as being in UNISON Northern region. It turns out there are two “John Gray” UNISON housing activists. I sought him out and met up with my Newcastle long lost cousin. How lucky and blessed the union is that there are two of us! Not least since we both agreed that we can blame the other John Gray for things. We swopped our regional name badges. Both of us are obviously steeped in the finest traditions of British local government.

At the end of the day there was an open forum for comments. I reminded folk about the disgraceful wages being paid to Housing Chief Executives. In particular the £327, 000 being paid to the Anchor Trust CEO (formerly “Help the Aged Housing association”) who is also trying to de-recognise their trade unions. How can these people be so shameless?

I’ll post further stuff as and when. If anyone else who was there wants to contribute then email me.

Picture is of Joseph Chamberlain, the Tory municipal "socialist" Mayor of Birmingham.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Rae Voller - Labour’s Voice for Romford

After canvassing for Rachel Saunders in Mile End East Ward, I then went last night to a reception for Rachel (Rae) Voller in Committee room 5, House of Commons.

Rae is the Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for Romford in the next general election. She is also a UNISON activist and elected member of UNISON National Labour Link committee (and its deputy chair).

Local Romford Labour Party members and UNISON members who live in Romford had been invited to meet Rae and discuss local issues.

I was there with my colleague, John Gough (London Ambulance Service) on behalf of the London UNISON Labour Link committee.

Rae gave a confident and very coherent “off the cuff” talk (without any notes!) about who she was, her background, why she joined the Party, her trade union and why the Party was so important for her and what she believed in. She mentioned her passionate belief in better social and childcare facilities for young and old. Her fear that the Tories have committed themselves to cutting Surestart. Rae is a midwife by profession and her colleagues, who are community based, are horrified at this prospect since they see the good that these centres achieve with families. For her Politics is all about making a difference, changing real peoples lives for the better, its not about the politicians you just see on TV.

Rae spent most of the meeting taking questions and comments (and asking questions back herself) about what Romford people think is important and what we should do to as a Party and her as a candidate to earn the votes of the people at Romford at the next general election.

Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor Jack Straw popped in to say "hello" and give a short speech reminding everyone that, although he represents the Northern consistency of Blackburn, he is really an Essex boy! Born in a LCC Council estate in Harold Hill. Romford and the surrounding area was his old “stomping ground”. His Mum aged 87, still lives in the area and had served as a local Councillor until she was nearly 80.

He describes life in politics at this moment as a “roller coaster”. He is still optimistic of victory at the next election, the maths are with us (we have some 356 seats while the Tories have under 200). He talked about his belief that politics is about improving people’s chances and how we need to defeat the BNP. We must win back the traditional solid Labour LCC estates. The BNP only succeed when we leave a vacuum in local politics for them to move into.

Victory in Romford in 2010 (or before) will be tough to achieve since the sitting Tory MP has an 11,500 majority. However, from 1997 to 2001 it was a Labour seat and the constituency is surrounded by sitting Labour MPs. If anyone can do it, it will be Rae.

Afterwards, some of us went to watch the debates in Parliament, while others managed to have a quick sherbet or two in the “Sports and Social” while putting the world to rights. I’ll leave it to your imagination to guess which option I took.

Rachel Saunders 4 Mile End East

Today was for me a very busy Labour Movement day. I went on an excellent UNISON training event on Pension governance which will finish tomorrow (I’ll post on this later), then at 6pm I met up with Labour canvassers outside Mile End Station to go out and work the ward for the forthcoming Council by-election in Mile End East.

The Labour Party candidate is Rachel Saunders, (see picture) who will make a superb Councillor if she is elected.

Rachel works for UNISON as a national officer. She went off with a canvass team including Councillors Helal Uddin Abbas (former leader of Tower Hamlets Council) and Marc Francis. I went with another team together with local ward Councillor Motin Uz-Zaman.

We went to a high rise tower block in the ward which was run by the large housing association “Places for People”. The block was actually in a very good condition and seemed to be well run and cared for by residents and staff. The canvass went very well even though I am always a little doubtful about what people tell you to get rid of you from the door step.

The other Mile End East Councillor was formerly a Respect Councillor and SWP member, who bizarrely defected to the Tories, so I assume he is pushing the Tory vote. So, to make sure the Tories do not win, vote Labour.

One of the residents I canvassed was a UNISON Health branch secretary who promised to “spread the word”. I had to leave early to another “Rachel” Labour event. This was "Rachel Voller 4 Romford" at the House of Commons which I will also post on soon as well.

Monday, November 10, 2008

How to Lose Friends and Alienate People

Don’t do it, Margaret don’t do it.... Inside Housing magazine reports here that Housing Minister, Margaret Beckett, is actually considering proposals by the Chartered Institute of Housing (of all people) to end lifelong social housing tenancies.

I covered this appalling suggestion here last month. The idea is that all tenancies should be flexible and subject to review. So if you are a social housing tenant (an ugly term, I wish we could think of something better?) gets a better paid job or their kids leave home, they face eviction? Leaving aside for now, that this would result in modern day social housing ghetto’s which are only inhabited by the very poor and the desperate.

Now, incentives to those who are on higher earnings and want to buy their own property or for pensioners to exchange for smaller properties when their kids leave home are well worth examining. But the idea that by going on training courses and bettering yourself you then run the risk of losing your home is just daft. Personally I do not want to go to court and evict grannies who have lived in a home for the past 40 years and who just want to spend their last days there amongst their friends and local community.

This is a really silly idea and potentially very damaging to the Labour Party. You can understand the reasons why we need to do something about the chronic shortage of family sized homes, but this policy is just a sign of desperate symptoms not solutions. Can you really imagine how this will go down in Labour heartlands? I can – and it’s all very, very badly.

Mucking about with allocation policies on the margin is no substitute for a serious large scale social housing building programme which also has the added benefit of keeping people in jobs and reflating the economy. Is there any other real solution to this problem Margaret? Come on, you know it makes sense.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Remembrance in London

This morning I went for a slow jog in the weak winter sunshine around Wanstead flats, listening to Radio 4 on my headphones. Instead of the “Today” programme there was a wonderful Remembrance Day religious service from Wales.

I am a convinced atheist but like most Brits brought up in state schools with Christian hymn singing at morning assemblies, and celebrating the Harvest, Easter and Christmas festivals, I consider myself "C of E". I have also of course attended countless “Christian” weddings and funerals since I was knee high. I usually find such services at symbolic times such as Remembrance Sunday very moving. Of course, historically many atheists feel very much “at home” in the Church of England.

The service discussed the famous and often quoted biblical quotation from Isaiah 2:4And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more”.

It was only today that I realised that the quotation referred only to an idealistic time where the worship and most importantly the rule of “God” was absolute, everyone accepted and submitted to his rule. This I think is important since you often hear this quotation being hawked about without it being in any way qualified. For all its many faults and limitations the only secular body I thought could possibly bring about universal peace and disarmament is our much maligned and often unfairly abused, United Nations.

Wars will continue to break out until nations surrender at least part of their sovereignty and power to a democratically constituted World Government. Until then despite all its faults we have the United Nations and if we are really interested in World Peace and preventing (don’t fool yourself that it can be stopped) War, then support the UN. Last week I had the privilege of attending a UN conference and while it is too easy to attack the UN it is difficult and very hard to come up with workable alternatives. Despite all this the many ferociously bright young people from all over the world, I came across last week at Geneva gave me cause for optimism.

Later on today I attended the National Remembrance service at Whitehall. It was also very moving and so packed with people that I could not get any nearer than Banqueting House. What struck me was the many young people and families with young children who were present. I think they were not serving military personnel but ordinary Brits that felt in someway it was important to turn up physically and show respect.

After the first very loud Royal Artillery gun blast which made us all jump and marked the start of the 2 minute silence, a very young lad standing on top of railings next to me looked startled and shouted out “Gran, was that suppose to happen?” to which she gave him a "look" and gently clouted him on his knee.

During the long 2 minutes silence itself in Whitehall, all I could hear was the cooing of babies, the cries of seagulls and the rustle of the wind in the trees.

La Cage Aux Folles

Mostly "off message" - yesterday I saw this excellent show with friends at the Playhouse Theatre, London. Great entertainment and well worth a visit. I hadn’t realised how many of my favourite songs had originated in this show.

You can appreciate how controversial it must have been when it was first produced in the 1980's. Things have changed, but remember the fuss last year about gay people adopting kids? Still a long way to go for some I think.

Showing my age, how many people remember the 1970’s TV comedy sitcom “Man about the House”? Singing and dancing her heart out last night was one of its stars, Paula Wilcox.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Labour Victory in Glenrothes

Great picture, great result, great Victory for the Labour Party.
We still cannot take anything for granted. But I hope that those who had written off the Party are now tucking into a large helping of humble pie? Chance would be a fine thing.
This is from an email sent by to Party members from Gordon Brown "I wanted to take the time to thank all those party members who helped secure a great win for Lindsay Roy in the Glenrothes by-election.
In particular I would like to pay tribute to Gordon Banks and John Park, Jim Murphy and Iain Gray for their energy and commitment. Lindsay was an excellent candidate and will make a great MP. It fills me with great pride that the former Head Master from my old school in Kirkcaldy will join us in the House of Commons. What this victory shows is that people want politicians who will help them fairly through the downturn, and that they will always turn away from those politicians who choose to play politics rather than offer solutions which protect people through this downturn.
That is why I am going to Brussels today to meet with other world leaders about the action we can take together to give British families and businesses the support and security they need to protect their mortgages, job and standards of living. In the meantime please join me in thanking all of those who helped secure Lindsay's win. Yours sincerely, Gordon Brown

Friday, November 07, 2008

At UN conference on Responsible Investment

Quick post during the lunch break, from the "Palais des Nations" in the United Nations, Geneva, Switzerland. I am at a "public-private workshop" co-hosted by UNCTAD and PRI (Principles of Responsible Investment).

There are about 200 delegates and visitors from all other the world. The full title is "Policy Context for Responsible Investment". For once the UN has got its timing perfect. I'll post further on the speakers when I get home. The Chair of PRI, Donald MacDonald, (BT pension scheme trustee) introduced the conference with an excellent speech on the collective failure of the investment chain and what needs to be done. The "big issue" is of course the world wide financial crisis, what caused it and what is the role of responsible investment in getting us out of this hole. Policy makers, financial services and investors. Also, how we can stop (or rather mitigate) against it ever happening again. All music to my ears.

One observation is that fund managers keep referring to themselves as "investors". While it is "good" that they do identify themselves in this way, they are not investors, we are. The small savers, pension and insurance policy holders who are the beneficiary owners of companies. They are financial contractors who we employ to look after our money and we should never forget this. My argument is that if the real investors (or owners) had played a greater role in the governance of their money we would not be in the mess we are now in.

The UN site itself is not what I expected. It reminds me of a 1960's University with endless long corridors. It is set in well maintained gardens overlooking the Lake with Peacocks wandering around freely.

BTW - excellent news about the Labour by-election victory in Glenrothes!

Thursday, November 06, 2008

"the greatest attack on workers rights...since the...1980's"?

The Viking Judgment.

Double click on scan to enlarge and get details. Its an open meeting on this important matter at Congress House on December 10th.

I've just received a briefing note form UNISON (Thompsons solicitors) and I post on it soon.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

It Looks Just Right...President Obama and family.

I was sent this picture today by a British colleague of African origin who was pleased as punch with the election result “across the pond”.

He wasn’t the only one. I’ve mentioned before in previous posts that I tend to get a bit of stick and good natured ribbing from work colleagues when I bring up matters which could be construed as “p-o-l-i-t-i-c-s”.

The election of Barack Obama, as President elect of the United States of America has changed this attitude. At least for today, maybe much longer, maybe not, but there is a change.

Black and white workers I thought were genuinely interested in the result; they were pleased, touched and at least a little inspired by his election. Over lunch someone mentioned that he never, ever expected that a Black man would become the most powerful person on the earth.

People were also realistic about the problems ahead and that now he is in power, poetry is not enough and he needs to deliver on economic bread and butter issues.

I listened this morning on the “Today” radio 4 news programme, while jogging around muddy Wanstead flats, a report about the controversial Black American civil rights leader, Rev Jessie Jackson, sobbing his heart out while holding an American flag and listening to Obama’s acceptance speech in Chicago. Someone else (sorry, I forget who) said that this election wiped out the original sin of America since many of its constitutional founder fathers had declared that all men are equal, while remaining slave owners. Powerful stuff.

It seems that America retains its revolutionary ardour when compared to “old Country”. While I think that this election result is also part of an international realignment of progressive forces following the failure of unregulated capitalism (which will benefit the British Labour Party). How realistic is it to imagine a Black British politician becoming Prime Minister?

I suppose that 4 years ago most people would have said the same about the prospect of a Black American President. In his autobiography, Colin Powell, the former Black head of the American Armed forces said that if his family had emigrated to Britain rather than America (from the West Indies) and he joined the British Army he would have been a non-commissioned Warrant officer at best. I don’t think that this is necessarily true nowadays but statistically it would have been true in the past and probably today.

There are a number of really talented and capable young political activists that I have met across all political parties (mostly Labour I will say) who happen to be black. I think there is at least one future Prime minister amongst them.

Of course I knew that Obama would win last week when I received a text from top Tower Hamlets Councillor (and UNISON member), Bill Turner, while he was on route to the States to help out with the Democratic campaign. As I know to my cost, Bill is a super enthusiastic election campaigner and will have no doubt spent every single waking hour (23.5/7) “fighting the good fight”. Bill being Bill, he of course also gave me an errand to do on his behalf back in “blighty”, but such is life and he obviously deserves it for his good work (on this occasion!)