Friday, 23 October 2009

Royal Mail strikes begin

The promised Royal Mail strikes began yesterday and have already caused significant disruption.

The ongoing struggle between the Communications Workers Union (CWU) and Royal Mail management shows no sign of abating, with the intransigent managers seemingly resigned to further industrial action over their "modernisation" agenda.

At the heart of the acrimonious dispute are concerns about how the final phase of the 2007 Pay and Modernisation Agreement will affect job security. The CWU argues that Royal Mail has not been honest about specific details potential job losses and that it has in fact stopped talking to the union.

There is no doubt that modernisation is necessary. While Royal Mail is clearly a historical institution of which the country has been proud, it can not survive on nostalgia. Largely due to changes in the way we communicate, Royal Mail estimates that its business is in decline and that the amount of mail it delivers is falling by 10 per cent annually. It also has a £6.8 billion pensions deficit.

The Post Office Network is being affected by significant changes which will not be reversed. What is needed therefore are imaginative and creative ideas as to how Royal Mail can evolve to meet these challenges - call it "modernisation" if you like. What is not needed, however, are acrimonious splits between unions and management, an inflexible management position and unnecessary strikes that could further damage the business.

The problems affecting Royal Mail are not unique to our own postal service. The US Postal Service ended its third quarter with a net loss of $2.4billion. Latvian Post claims that mail volume has fallen by 41 per cent and as a result has introduced urgent measures to revise employees' salaries so that they are more performance-related. Even Deutsche Post has been suffering, and has announced that it is to close all Post Offices it operates without a retail partner - this in practice means about 500 post office closures.

The reason I highlight this is to demonstrate the global nature of the problem. Postal administrations across the world are having to take action to ensure the future of their mail services. Royal Mail, in contrast to the above, actually made a significant profit in the last financial year, with the main letters and packages unit making £58million. This gives Royal Mail an advantage in putting into place a genuinely modern programme which will create a fit-for-purpose Post Office network, involves its employees to a greater degree in facilitating change and provides a valuable service to local communities.

As I've stated in previous posts, I strongly believe that key means of tackling some of Royal Mail's problems would be for communities to be empowered and assisted to take control of their Post Offices, reform of the Post Office structure and the provision of a wider range of services. Unfortunately, the narrow debate between the CWU and Royal Mail managers means that constructive political ideas are struggling to be heard.

Let's kick homophobia into touch

Jan Moir, a columnist for the Daily Mail, this week found herself at the centre of controversy after penning what is, to all intents and purposes, a deeply homophobic interpretation of the death of Boyzone's Stephen Gately.

In her piece, "A strange, lonely and troubling death", she pours scorn on the facts surrounding Mr Gately's death, labelling the circumstances as "sleazy" and insisting that "Gately's death...strikes another blow to the happy-ever-after myth of civil partnerships". She suggests that civil partnerships are simply not "the same" as heterosexual marriages and asserts that Mr Gately's "dangerous lifestyle" caused his sad death.

Why is it reasonable to suggest that one young man's death "strikes a blow" to civil partnerships? Would she suggest that the untimely death of a married heterosexual person strikes a blow to the institution of marriage? Of course not. Would she ever make poorly-researched assumptions about the moral value of marriage? No, thought not.

She also managed to have a pop at the relationship between Matt Lucas and his former partner Kevin McGee, who also died recently. Apart from the disgusting lack of respect for the recently deceased, the article highlighted the sad fact that homophobia and socially divisive prejudices are still there and need to be challenged.

Moir's piece was nasty, cruel, prejudiced and woefully inaccurate. Such crude homophobia has no place in a civilised society, let alone in the pages of a supposedly respectable newspaper. Sadly, she is not alone in her views, as evidenced by recent homophobic attacks. While great strides have been made in recent years gay people still experience prejudice and intolerance.

It's time for society to kick homophobia into touch. It should become as socially unacceptable as racism. Society needs to accept the challenge that the likes of Jan Moir have laid down: reject homophobia and intolerance. For ever.

Nick Griffin: a wolf in wolf's clothing

Like many people, I was concerned about the BNP appearing on last night's Question Time. That's not because I think the BNP should have been excluded - free speech is of paramount importance in a liberal democracy. It would plainly be wrong to exclude the BNP and would only play into their hands. However, I was worried that Nick Griffin would put on the kind of performance that might convince some people that he leads a respectable political party that identifies with the needs of working people.

Fortunately, Nick Griffin was unable to pull off the act. Faced with a largely hostile audience, the BNP leader simply confirmed the intolerant and racist nature of his party, was caught out by his own lies and demonstrated a woeful lack of knowledge about either political issues or our country's history.

Question Time was a triumph for the approach advocated by Jack Straw, who believes the best way to deal with the BNP is to allow their views to be publicly exposed and properly scrutinised. It is an approach that I think will work effectively. In a previous post (How do we deal with the BNP?) I suggested that "we need to be willing to discuss these ideas with people, and challenge perceptions rather than ignore them". I also believe that another key way to fight the BNP is by addressing the many legitimate grievances that people have, thus depriving the BNP of ammunition.

Debate raged about whether or not the BBC should have allowed Nick Griffin to appear on Question Time. From a legal perspective, the BBC had little choice now that the party have two elected MEPs. However, many people felt differently and it was hard not to sympathise with the hundreds of demonstrators who protested outside the BBC yesterday - even if their tactics were misguided. Decent people don't want a man with the views of Nick Griffin expressing their hatred on national TV.

Nick Griffin claimed that he was on a "mission to give the BNP more respectability". On the basis of what he said last night, he has some way to go. It's clear he believes in race-based politics, holds homophobic views (he called gay men "creepy") and peddles hatred and fear towards minority groups. He also seems to have rather interesting connections with the Ku Klux Klan. As rather amusing exchanges with Bonnie Greer also reveal, he has a very limited understanding of British history. That a man of such bigoted views and limited ability can be elected as an MEP really should shame the people of the North West.

Jack Straw was roundly applauded for countering the vile arguments of Nick Griffin so effectively - which rather sounds like a compliment for Mr Straw but isn't intended to be. Unfortunately, Question Time - having invited Mr Griffin onto the show - was dominated by discussion of his party. This was unhelpful, especially when there should have been discussion about the economic situation and the problems of Royal Mail.

All the same, I'm very pleased the BNP leader was allowed to appear on Question Time. He's been exposed for what he really is, and the BNP shown to be a front for a divisive and destructive ideology.

Monday, 12 October 2009

The Private Sector: An Unhealthy Obsession.

In his speech to party conference, David Cameron was keen to identify himself with a "compassionate" one-nation Conservative vision for Britain. Unfortunately for him, there were plenty of other speakers at the conference whose contributions suggested that the influence of Thatcherism is still strong.

First, we had Mayor of London Boris Johnson heaping praise on the banking industry. That's just what you need when you want to convince the public you're on their side - blundering Boris defending the practices of those who brought our country to its knees. Good timing, Boris!

More concerning was the number of delegates keen to preach the merits of the free market in combating the complexities of Britain's current socio-economic difficulties. Foremost among these contributors was Andrew Mitchell who, in a speech on International Aid, reinforced the Tory philosophy that "private sector growth and wealth creation [are] the only means out of poverty".

This dogmatic approach demonstrates how short the Conservatives are on imaginative solutions to global problems. It also, however, shows them as a party of inflexible followers of a destructive doctrine.

Mr Mitchell praised Margaret Thatcher for her "courage and honesty" and waxed lyrical about the economic legacy of her government (conveniently forgetting the recession of the early 90s). He then returned to his brief of international development, describing some of the serious problems facing Zimbabwe. His solution? To "galvanise Zimbabwe's private sector" as the only way to "rebuild that beleaguered country".

Global poverty needs addressing urgently. There is no escaping the sad realities that poverty causes. In Africa, for example, a deadly combination of political instability, war, HIV/AIDS, climate change, lack of healthcare, insanitation, economic factors and the greed of multi-nationals has created misery for millions. Addressing the social injustice of poverty requires complex and careful thinking, not Thatcherite dogma.

That there are senior Conservatives who actually believe that it is the use of the public sector that has destroyed African economies underlines how removed from reality the Tories are. It is one thing to believe in the value of a free market - quite another to preach that only greater use of the private sector can end poverty. I can only guess what Mr Geldof makes of this...

This is an obsession that is not only unhealthy, but socially dangerous. It makes you wonder what these private sector devotees will do to the NHS - or the Post Office.

No policy in Cameron’s speech

David Cameron’s speech to Conservative Party Conference last week was notably light on detail and policy – but full of tough talk and aspirational dialogue.

He wants to be taken seriously as a potential Prime Minister and was keen to talk about Labour’s failures and “broken” Britain, which he contrasted with Tory “compassion” and his vision to “put Britain back on her feet”.

Mr Cameron’s speech was packed with emotive soundbytes but the frustrating lack of detailed policy suggests that perhaps his ideas to turn the country’s fortunes around are perhaps not quite as well developed as his populist rhetoric.

Mr Cameron said some positive things in his speech. For example, he expressed support for civil partnerships, the minimum wage and devolution – Labour achievements that the Tories have voted against and derided in the past. As if anxious to prove that the Tories have changed, he talked about “community”, “family” and “responsibility”. In an apparent move towards the Conservatism of the pre-Thatcher years, he seemed to promise a more caring, one-nation, Conservative Britain.

Like Churchill, Mr Cameron was keen to focus on his personality, urging people to back him even if they harboured doubts about his party. Unlike Churchill, Mr Cameron wasn’t quite so keen to talk about how he plans to actually deliver the promised changes.

On social mobility, he criticised Labour’s inaction in reducing inequality and said “I want every child to have the chances that I had... Birth [should never be] a barrier” Fine sentiment, with which I completely agree. How he’s going to make a positive contribution to ending such inequalities, however, he didn’t care to tell us. He spoke about the need for “communities to govern themselves”, for “families [to] come first” and for “children to grow up with security and love”. An obvious attempt to reach out to the voters of middle Britain – but how do the Conservatives plan to bring about this brave new Britain? Mr Cameron didn’t say.

In between attacks on Labour, Mr Cameron was keen to talk about responsibility (something he mentioned 29 times). He was in his element when talking about the need for economic responsibility, and promised a Conservative government would reverse “the steady erosion of responsibility” under Labour. “We [have to] face up to some big problems” said Mr Cameron. “The highest budget deficit since the war. The deepest recession since the war. Social breakdown; political disillusionment. Big problems for the next government to address.” Quite. But how he intends to address them is anyone’s guess. He didn’t want to say.

Another word Mr Cameron used a great deal was “broken”. If the Tories want to describe anything at the moment, it seems they have to call it “broken”. “Why is our society broken?” asked Mr Cameron. “Because government got too big, did too much and undermined responsibility” was his straight-to-the-point answer. I’m not convinced that society is actually as broken as Mr Cameron imagines, but even accepting this, it is hardly responsible to reduce complex questions of social policy to simple criticisms of government approach. Progressive social change requires more than a change of government. It certainly requires a bit more than a Tory leader patronisingly helping the feckless poor to be responsible.

I was pleased to hear talk of “stronger communities”, although there was no discussion as to how to actually make our communities stronger and more empowered. I was also interested to hear that Mr Cameron believed that it should be a priority to “get a grip on [the country’s] debt.” He explained that it was vital to do this “ in a way that brings the country together instead of driving it apart... The longer we wait for a credible plan, the bigger the bill for our children to pay.” What Mr Cameron didn’t manage to come up with was a credible plan.

He did suggest that new businesses and entrepreneurship should be encouraged, and proposed that the Bank of England should be handed back its regulation powers. But that seemed to be the sum of the Tories’ plan to “get Britain back on its feet.”

Mr Cameron referred to his party’s plans to reduce dependency on welfare. “If you really cannot work, we'll look after you. But if you can work, you should work and not live off the hard work of others” he said. While I don’t disagree with the need to prevent people falling into the “poverty trap” and becoming dependent on benefits, I find his use of such inflammatory language socially irresponsible. Very many people on benefits have no wish to be living off others and would welcome the opportunity to be free of welfare if only there were the opportunities to do so – I should know, I’ve lived on handouts and hated it.

There was talk of the Tories being “the party of the NHS” (but nothing on health policy). There was highly-charged talk about “a breakdown of morality” (but no mention of policy on justice). Mr Cameron talked of the need for the Tories to “lead the world in saving our planet”. But sadly no mention of any plans or environmental policies.

On the basis of their leader’s speech, the Tories are even more bankrupt of ideas than the tired Labour government. They seem happy to cynically manipulate public opinion with highly-charged and emotive language; happy to describe our communities as “broken” but less eager to actually tell us how they plan to turn things around. The Lib Dems’ Danny Alexander was critical of the "huge gulf between the sunny rhetoric of David Cameron and the grim reality of Tory policy". I can’t disagree.

“It’s your character, your temperament and your judgment that count so much more than your policies and your manifesto” said Mr Cameron, whose judgment was so clearly evident in the Tories’ refusal to support the government’s partial nationalisation of the banks. Cameron clearly recognises that Tory policies will not win him the election and prefers instead to rely on his personal character. Yet another victory for style over substance.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

"Honest George" sets out stall

The Tories are a pretty gloomy lot. You wonder why, when they're so far ahead in the polls. But I've been watching their conference, and I'm hearing a lot about "broken Britain", "broken families", "broken society" and "broken communities".

I'm not one of life's pessimists and I don't find this negative interpretation of some of the social problems affecting our communities to be very compelling. True - there are shocking inequalities that need remedying. There are particular areas in our country where the challenges in removing inequalities and tackling social problems are particularly tough. But responsible politicians should look beyond all the gloom and put forward practical solutions.

The Tories seem more concerned with blaming Labour for creating a "broken society" than they are about fixing society. They're happy to tell us that the Blair/Brown legacy is teenage crime, drug abuse and a cynical, uncaring society. They have no problem in manipulating people's insecurities and fears - after all, it's easier to do that than actually take responsibility.

The Tories have entrenched views in regards dealing with poverty and social problems. From what I've seen of the conference so far, they also have very entrenched views on education (the "traditional" approach apparently fits all) and on the economy. It started with Boris Johnson praising bankers and speaking out against regulation, showing just how in touch he is with the views of British voters. In a throwback to the ideology of Thatcher, he supported low taxation and light regulation for the financial sector while backing cuts and pay freezes for other workers.

Then George Osborne took up the mantle. Mr Osborne was at pains to paint himself as the "honest man" of British politics. "We're all in this together" he said, referring to the economic situation. He called for a public sector pay freeze, which has drawn criticism from the Unions. He pledged to save £3billion by cutting departmental budgets, to ensure that child trust finds and tax credits will only go to the poorest families and to cut the cost of government.

There's also the targeted reduction of those in receipt of incapacity benefit. While I recognise that many people are trapped by the benefits system and that reform is necessary, the right approach is to regularly re-assess every case on its own merits - not to make arbitrary targets in this way.

It will be interesting to see what the public make of this. Mr Osborne's main argument was that there can be no easy decisions. However, the fact that the Tories still find public sector workers easy targets and have ruled out tax cuts for the wealthy only in the short term suggests that, despite this "honesty" from Mr Osborne, they're still the same old Tories.

Cameron plays down EU split

David Cameron has come under a bit of pressure over his position on the Lisbon Treaty. Recently, he's claimed to support a referendum on the Treaty but now appears to have back-pedalled a bit.

This comes after Irish voters, at the second time of asking, gave their government the "Yes" vote it wanted to ratify the Treaty. A victory for the "if at first you don't get your way, keep trying till you do" kind of government.

Ireland's "Yes" vote means that Mr Cameron has been asked what action he will take if the Lisbon Treaty comes into force before the next election. His response so far has been to say nothing, arguing that doing so would undermine discussions taking place in Poland and the Czech Republic, which are expected to ratify shortly.

It's made life a bit difficult for the Tory leader, who would rather not be talking about Europe. But he hasn't really helped himself. You see, the Tory promise of a referendum was on the basis of "his party winning power before the treaty is ratified by all 27 EU states".

An apparent rift between Cameron and Mayor of London Boris Johnson has created further problems for the Tory leader.

Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg said that the Irish "Yes" vote "finally puts to rest years of wrangling over Europe’s future and paves the way for a stronger and more democratic European Union." He added that "the worst thing would be to re-open this self-indulgent debate...The Conservatives are already embarrassing themselves...on Europe...The EU offers us safety in numbers and this is why best place for Britain remains at the very heart of Europe.”

It will be interesting to see what the Tories make of this in the days to come. It seems that the old divisions on Europe will soon be painfully obvious.