From Stalin to Mr Bean

The title of this comes from the killer line delivered by Vince Cable, acting leader of the Lib-Dems, at Prime Ministers’ Questions today.

I’ve not devoted a full post to this latest scandal yet, and not to worry, the Abrahams affair rumbles on.

The Morning Star’s Adrian Roberts writes:

NEW Labour struggled with deepening crisis on Wednesday as senior party figures tripped over each other while trying to explain away the latest donations scandal.

During rowdy exchanges in the Commons, Prime Minister Gordon Brown said that the government would co-operate with any police inquiry into donations to the Labour Party by property developer David Abrahams.

But his excuses did not stop jubilant Tory leader David Cameron from making hay at the hapless Premier’s expense.

Latest word is that Abrahams was badgered for donations by Jonathan Mendelsohn, Brown’s chief fundraiser, and now the Scottish Labour Party has been drawn in:

The row over Labour Party funding has drawn in the party’s Scottish leader Wendy Alexander.

Ms Alexander is checking the source of a donation to her successful campaign to win the leadership in Scotland.

A spokesman said Ms Alexander’s team had acted in good faith but the SNP said Labour “sleaze” had come north.

My blogging companero Wonko asks an interesting question about the party’s solvency:

The Labour Party has outstanding debts of £29,178,692 – nearly £29.2m. Does Labour have sufficient liquidity to meet loan repayments? No, it has had to restructure some of its loans. Does it have sufficient assets – property, cash reserves, guarantors – to repay its debts? No, it has very few assets. The Liebour Party is insolvent.

[…]

What happens if a large creditor – the Unity Trust Bank for example – decides to call in its loans? Liebour hasn’t exactly been union friendly this time round and they shouldn’t rely on union support forever – it’ll carry on for as long as they are useful to each other and no longer (Unity Trust Bank is a union bank). If the Liebour Party no longer exists can a Liebour government continue to run the country?

A very pertinent question. Brown’s “government of all the talents” can perhaps be viewed as an attempt to forge a new political party, more akin to the Democrats in the US, with the Liberal Democrats and opportunistic Tories?

New Labour has always said to dissenting unions that there’s nowhere else to go (this, as they do their best to prevent a challenge from the Labour Left and stop a successful anti-capitalist party being established). But if this recent scandal results in state funding of political parties or a cap on donations, there could be a chance some unions decide to cease funding Labour centrally and instead invest in those parliamentary candidates that act in the interests of working people, and not the big business elite.

Demonstrating and rallying for sacked Unison workers

This write up from this weeks’ Socialist Worker:

On the march to defend sacked trade unionist Karen Reissmann
by Yuri Prasad

Trade unionists and health campaigners from across Britain demonstrated in Manchester on Saturday of last week to demand the reinstatement of nurse Karen Reissmann, who was sacked last month for speaking out against cuts and privatisation.

The demonstration came at a crucial point in the dispute.Karen’s appeal against dismissal is scheduled for 3 December. Unison, her union, is calling a day of solidarity two days later.

Police say the Manchester march was attended by over 1,500 people. It was a sea of colour, with more than 50 banners from a wide range of unions, including Unite, CWU, FBU, NUT, PCS and RMT.

Karen is chair of Unison’s Manchester community and mental health branch and a member of the union’s national health executive.

Her sacking has sent a shockwave through Unison and beyond. It represents a fundamental attack on freedom of speech and the freedom to organise. It is a threat to every trade unionist and to everyone who uses public services.

Around 150 mental health workers at the trust where Karen has worked for the past 25 years are now in their fourth week of indefinite strike action, demanding that she is reinstated.

“It’s vitally important that we came to this protest,” Tam Waterson, the chair of Unison’s Scottish health committee, told Socialist Worker. “If they can get away with this in Manchester, no trade unionist will be safe.”

Mick McGahey, a Unison branch secretary at Lothian ­primary care trust, agrees. “This needs to be a political as well as an industrial fight,” he said.

“With so many on strike, clearly the industrial side is going well. Now I want to see the union’s Labour Link organisation getting to work on this one – I want every Unison sponsored MP to be raising this issue in parliament.”

Unison’s assistant general secretary Bob Abberley spoke at the rally, pledging Karen the full support of her national union.

A group of strikers from Glasgow day centre also joined the demonstration. Sobia told Socialist Worker that they had come to show their solidarity.

“We are in the same kind of struggle – though ours is directly over cuts in services and staff salaries,” she said. “It’s obvious we should stand together.”

The Manchester strikers responded by handing a cheque for £500 from their branch towards the Glasgow dispute – despite the intense pressure on their own funds.

It emerged last week that the strike action by community teams is putting the Manchester trust under massive pressure, with ward-based staff saying the service is “close to breaking point”.

Socialist Worker has seen a letter from Dr Judy Harrison, who chairs the trust’s medical committee, which was sent to trust boss Sheila Foley last week.

Resolution

It says, “Crises are increasingly being dealt with by on-call doctors and social workers and via accident and emergency… as there are no viable community alternatives. We urge the trust to explore all avenues to achieve a resolution to the ­current dispute.”

But Foley has responsed by lashing out at striking staff. Last week she tried to get striking nurses and occupational therapists “struck off” – but was forced to back down after being told that professional staff have a right to withdraw their labour.

The strike regularly appears on the front page of the Manchester Evening News and has split opinion in the local Labour Party.

Some prominent Labour councillors have attacked the strikers, but Tony Lloyd MP has made clear his support for Karen. He told the rally, “Karen is my constituent, but I am not here in that capacity. I am here because there is a basic trade union principle at stake.

“That principle is the right for an active trade union to speak out about what’s happening in a public service that we own.”

Karen’s appeal against her sacking starts on Monday 3 December. The best way to help win back her job is to make the day of action on Wednesday 5 December a huge success.

Unison is asking trade unionists to organise rallies and protests on the day to raise awareness and money for the strike.

The Manchester dispute must become such a touchstone in the trade union movement that health secretary Alan Johnson is forced to act and order the trust to reinstate Karen.

Rush donations and speaker requests to the Manchester community and mental health Unison branch, 70 Manchester Road, M21 9UN. Go to » http://www.reinstate-karen.org

Email messages of protest to Alan Johnson, secretary of state for health, at johnsona@parliament.uk

And from PR, details of the upcoming rally:

Tuesday 11th December

A meeting against privatisation and against the victimisation of those who oppose it – backing the campaigns of Karen Reissmann in Manchester, Michael Gavan in Newham, and the Fremantle workers in Barnet

From 7pm, Committee Room 9 in the House of Commons, London.

Speakers include: John Burgess (Barnet UNISON), Michael Gavan (Newham UNISON), Kelvin Hopkins MP, John McDonnell MP, Karen Reissmann (Manchester UNISON), Matt Wrack (FBU).

£170bn Private Finance Initiative “rip-off” leading to cuts in public services

From The Morning Star:

£170bn PFI con-trick denounced
(Tuesday 27 November 2007)
by JAMES TWEEDIE

MPs and trade unions attacked the £170 billion private finance initiative “rip-off” on Tuesday.

The present and future governments will have to fork out the massive sum – almost twice the annual NHS budget – to banks, speculators and privateers for 800 PFI schemes, including hospitals, schools and prisons, between now and 2032.

Commons public accounts committee member Richard Bacon MP uncovered the real cost of new Labour’s PFI obsession from Treasury public service and growth directorate managing director John Kingman.

Mr Kingman later claimed that this figure was “meaningless” and tried to spin it in terms of “today’s money” at a mere £91 billion.

PFI schemes involve private companies funding public-sector projects, usually through bank loans or share sales. The public-sector “partner” is then obliged to lease back the hospital, school, prison or other infrastructure over several decades, for many times the initial investment.

PFI schemes have been beset by scandals and disasters, often caused by private-sector corner-cutting. Privateers have also turned the screw on government and local authorities for extra payments once they have won contracts, sometimes up to 26 per cent of the agreed price.

Public accounts committee chairman Edward Leigh MP said: “The process by which PFI projects are tendered has not improved, it has got worse.

“If the public sector is to get value for money, then the market must be truly competitive. What we find instead is that a third of recent projects attracted only two viable bids.”

National Union of Teachers general secretary Steve Sinnott added: “It is no surprise that PFI is the most expensive way to rebuild schools. The government now must urgently review its support for this scheme.”

A spokeswoman for health union UNISON added: “Generations will be paying for this for years to come. It’s like using a credit card to pay your mortgage. These expensive PFI projects should be cancelled.”

Labour MP Ian Gibson stormed: “The public has been completely ripped off, not just in terms of money now but in the future. This is an inheritance of loss to the public exchequer and to our taxes.

“The argument that PFI was the only way to build new schools and hospitals has been exposed,” he insisted.

“It was not the only way. We said so at the time, but we lost the argument because the truth was never fully disclosed to us.

“Ministers hid behind the ‘confidentiality’ of commercial deals.”

And from the BBC website:

Some councils are being forced to cut services because private firms are exploiting a flagship Treasury scheme to push up prices, MPs have said.
The public accounts committee said a lack of competition for private finance initiative (PFI) contracts was making the public sector “vulnerable”.

Committee chairman Edward Leigh said the bidding process had got worse since MPs last examined it four years ago.

But the Treasury said extra investment from PFI had been “worthwhile”.

The committee found that tendering for PFI contracts had to be competitive to ensure value for money.

Rising costs

But a third of recent projects only had two viable bidders, it added. There are 800 PFI contracts with private suppliers, which will be worth a total of £155bn up to 2032.

But the committee said the Treasury had failed to learn lessons from mistakes which were made in the past.

Mr Leigh, Conservative MP for Gainsborough, said: “PFI deals were supposed to give us certainty about the long-term costs of providing public services.

“The reality is different. Benchmarking and market testing of the costs of delivering ongoing services under PFI deals – such as catering and cleaning – have in practice led to increases in prices of up to 14%.”

He added: “The lack of PFI expertise among the public sector procurement teams is resulting in poor negotiating with bidders who often have the whip hand.

“The public sector must not be placed in this vulnerable position.”

Mr Leigh said there were signs that “market interest is weakening, with fewer serious bids for recent deals”.

Postal deal leaves DWP staff to fight alone

It worked then.

What’s that, you ask? Well, the “cooling-off” period.

A legendary tool for ending industrial disputes, this time it was used by the postal union, the CWU, which called off industrial action while the ballot on the deal took place.

Now a majority of CWU members have voted to accept a 6.9% increse in pay over two years and the accompanying erosion of terms and conditions…

This means that the much talked-about public sector alliance has come to nought. Okay, the Royal Mail deal breaks the 2% rule, but it opens the road to worsening conditions for postal workers and the eventual privatisation of the company, ending another public service.

The 80,000 members of the PCS at the Department of Work and Pensions, who voted two to one for strike action, must now fight alone.

Here’s what Permanent Revolution say about the Royal Mail deal:

Royal Mail: CWU Leadership Delivers Bosses’ Agenda
The ballot of some 130,000 CWU members employed by Royal Mail drew to a close on 27 November. Postal workers ultimately voted by 64 percent to 36 percent in favour of a two-year deal, agreed by the CWU general secretary Billy Hayes and his deputy, Dave Ward, in mid-October. The proposal had previously been ratified by a majority of 9 to 4 at the union’s national postal executive.

The agreement between the union tops and Royal Mail’s management came after eight days of official strikes starting in late June and amid a spreading wave of unofficial – and so ‘illegal’ – action that had halted all mail on Merseyside and wide swathes of London. Hours before the announcement of an agreement Royal Mail had applied for and obtained a High Court injunction against official strikes going ahead the following week.

From the outset of the dispute the key figures in the union’s leadership had shown little appetite for a fight, with Billy Hayes apparently investing hope in a Gordon Brown premiership as a source of relief. In mid-August the leadership suspended action for a six-week period in exchange for renewed negotiations that yielded little that was new. The High Court injunction appeared to offer a way out.

While the eventual pay offer was a slight improvement on the pay freeze Royal Mail bosses originally demanded, the total package still amounts to only 5.4 percent over two years from October 2007 – in short a real pay cut – and with any further increases tied to ever more ‘flexible’ working patterns. Under the agreement, nine-hour shifts on Fridays could become the norm.

In most every other key respect, the Hayes/Ward leadership made major concessions to the company, while in the process abandoning long-standing CWU positions such as the 35-hour week. The implementation of this deal will do nothing to stop the threat of 40,000 jobs losses in the service. There is no prospect of blocking the closure of several mail centres. Coventry’s centre is under immediate threat of closure and sell-off.

Likewise, the deal was silent about the fate of CWU activists who were suspended by Royal Mail management during the course of the dispute. Even before the deal went to the membership for a vote Royal Mail had terminated Sunday postal collections.

One element of the agreement, which the CWU leadership had claimed was a question for another ballot, was the pension scheme. Both Royal Mail bosses and the TUC’s general secretary, Brendan Barber, have insisted that the pensions issue was inextricably linked to the rest of the deal. The likely effect of ratification will be to sanction an increase in the retirement age from 60 to 65 years with a reduction in the average payout.

Fortunately, the deal provoked widespread and, to an unprecedented extent, organised opposition, reflected to some degree in the rejection of the deal by well over a third of the membership despite a hard sales pitch from CWU HQ. Some 35 branch committees across the country recommended rejection of the deal in the wake of a leaflet issued by two long-standing activists, Dave Chapple from Bristol and Pete Firmin from London West End Amal branch, and adopted by the second of two hastily organised weekend meetings. Still more branches might have rebelled against the leadership’s recommendation, but for the enduring personal loyalty in the London district of the union to Dave Ward.

Conspicuous by her absence from the ‘no’ vote campaign was union president and prominent SWP member, Jane Loftus. While she voted against the deal at the postal executive, she declined to join with two other executive members in asserting the right to publicly oppose the agreement and did not even disclose her own position on the deal at the 17 November delegates’ conference of the SWP-backed version of Respect.

In sharp contrast, SWP members among rank and file CWU militants have been to the fore in campaigning against the deal. Once more, as in the case of SWP PCS executive members voting for a 2005 deal increased the pensionable age for new employees in the Civil Service, it poses sharp questions about the accountability of SWP trade union tops. In Royal Mail the retention of a bureaucratic title seems to have become more important than mounting the strongest possible resistance to a deal that could well pave the way to the eventual privatisation of the whole operation.

Meanwhile, in an encouraging development, key figures in the campaign for rejection have called for a further meeting in central London on Sunday afternoon 2 December (at the Lucas Arms, Gray’s Inn Road, London WC1, tube: King’s Cross) to assess the state of play after the ballot result and to lay the basis for a more durable national network of rank and file activists. This will be essential in backing any unofficial action over the coming weeks and months and could be the starting point for a serious challenge to a leadership that has proved itself to be anything but an ‘awkward squad’ in recent months.