‘On probation’ PM given two months to turn things round
June 6, 2008 12:00 am
by Chris McLaughlin
GORDON BROWN remains “on probation” as leader of the Labour Party with two months to turn the Government around before facing the prospect of a leadership challenge.
Amid deep and wide-ranging discontent welling up as the trade union conference season gets into full swing, one proposal being canvassed is a joint ticket of Health Secretary Alan Johnson for leader and backbench Dagenham MP Jon Cruddas for deputy. Neither is encouraging the plan and both are on record insisting that the party’s problems are not a matter of personalities. Mr Cruddas is also understood to have rejected overtures from former Home Secretary Charles Clarke for a new intra-party coalition to replace Mr Brown in order to avoid a catastrophic defeat at the next general election.
Although the mood among MPs calmed at Westminster after the recess and the Crewe and Nantwich by-election, Mr Brown is faced with a series of heated rebellions from union conferences where members are calling for disaffiliation from the Labour Party unless a radical change of direction in Government policy begins to take shape soon.
Train drivers’ union ASLEF rejected calls for disaffiliation at its conference in Nottingham this week, the first major union gathering since the disastrous May Day massacre and by-election. The GMB and Communication Workers’ Union both debate calls next week for the financial link to be broken with Labour and Unison faces similar calls at its conference a week later.
Delegates at ASLEF’s conference set the tone of the growing discontent with Government policy. Andy Hudd from Oxford called for affiliation money “to support organisations and individuals who share ASLEF’s aspirations” – and this, he made clear, did not include “new” Labour. Although speaker after speaker condemned the drift from “the party of labour to the party of privilege’, it was felt it would be the wrong time to abandon the affiliation with “the party we invented”.
Guest speaker Alan Simpson said Gordon Brown has “until the end of the year to avoid the fall from the pier”. But other senior union officials and MPs believe that Mr Brown has until the end of July to stage a recovery before a challenge should be set in motion for Labour’s annual conference.
Leaders of the major unions are not pressing for a leadership challenge. However, the mood of dissatisfaction was summed up in a statement last week by the GMB’s Paul Kenny who warned Mr Brown that workers are “concerned and dismayed” at the current direction of the Government. Mr Kenny said many of his members did not understand why Mr Brown was not being more proactive in tackling problems such as the rising price of energy, accusing him of constantly reacting to events after they have happened rather than driving his own agenda.
He does not believe it is the time for Britain’s third largest union to “head off into the political wilderness” and believes the GMB will hold back from disaffiliation next week. But officials concede that it will require “deft footwork” to hold back the tide of feeling against the Government.
“I am not advocating disaffiliation, but I acknowledge there is widespread concerned and dismay about the direction, policies and lack of action by the Government. A lot of my members say the Government is reactive rather than proactive. They don’t understand why something hasn’t been done about the obscene City bonuses which have helped fuel the housing slump. The Government doesn’t appear to be addressing the basic issues.”
The GMB, like other unions, is angry over a proposal put forward by Justice Secretary Jack Straw in talks about party funding that the entirety of union political funds should go directly to Labour headquarters. Last year the GMB gave £1.4 million to Labour, £926,000 centrally and the rest to local parties or campaigns such as opposing the BNP or against the closures of Remploy factories, which is specifically against Government policy.
Mr Kenny said: “The Government is going down the wrong road and taking the wrong direction on this. There is no way we are going to concede the right to allocate cash to Gordon Brown and the party headquarters when not all our members support everything that the Government is doing.”
Unions are backing calls for fairer trade union rights, equal pay legislation, protection for workers in companies taken over by private equity firms and other measures ahead of the National Policy Forum meeting and talks with Downing Street next month.
Derek Simpson, joint general secretary of Unite, told a meeting of the Amicus section activists in Brighton that it was time “new” Labour was consigned to the history books and called for policies to deal with inequality, housing shortages and the health service.
He said Unite would use its influence as Labour’s biggest financial supporter rather than issuing “hysterical and destabilising” threats of disaffiliation, warning that “even one term of a Tory government could prove impossible for the trade union movement to recover from.”