Friday, 27 November 2015

Heart of the Matter

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Robin Lustig averts his gaze from the current meltdown taking place within Labour Party to explain why he supports the proposal to extend the scope of military action against the 'mad dogs' of the Islamic State.

Quite the best thing I've read on the subject - serious, thoughtful, measured - and all the more powerful coming from someone who is neither a politician nor a committed idealogue.

Read Robin's case here:

Winner of the 2014 Editorial Intelligence Independent Blogger of the Year award

Friday, 27 November 2015

Syria: Why I am a reluctant bomber

In the interests of taste and decency, let us look away from the gruesome spectacle of the civil war that has engulfed the Labour party and concentrate instead on the far more serious conflict in Syria. So here are some questions that you might like to ask yourself (with my answers) before you decide whether you agree with David Cameron that the UK should now join the international military action against IS in Syria.

Labour 'Suicide Bombers'

Ken Livingstone is the latest 'zealot' who seems intent on blowing the Labour Party apart over the best way to tackle the terrorist atrocities inspired by the fascist thugs of the Islamic State. 

In his latest outburst, Livingstone blames Tony Blair for the murderous attack on London on 7/7, yet the former London Mayor had a very different and defiant message for the terrorists at the time.

But all this appears to have been forgotten in the increasingly bitter civil war that is underway about who controls the Labour Party.

Although at this rate and with the party's approval ratings dropping like a stone, I suspect  few, if any, of the wider electorate are likely to care.

Fingers in Ears

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I listened to the debate in the House of Commons yesterday on extending military action against the fascist thugs of the Islamist State by targeting its safe havens in  Syria.

Now whatever else you could say this was a very serious and thoughtful debate with members of all parties making valid points, from both sides of the argument. 

In particular, the Prime Minister laid out a clear, coherent case for further action to prevent 'jihadi' terrorists from securing a firm base in Syria and Iraq from which to build a war against their neighbours and 'live and let live' values of the west.  

In response to House of Commons debate and a subsequent discussion within the Labour's shadow cabinet, Jeremy Corbyn released the following letter reflecting his own personal views which have remained fixed and unchanged over the past thirty years. 

I'm sure the letter was written long before MPs even held their debate and the contents show no sign of reflecting on anything that was said.

No wonder the Labour leadership is in such trouble. 

Dear Colleague,

The Prime Minister made a Statement to the House today making the case for a UK bombing campaign against ISIS in Syria. A copy of my response has already been circulated.

We have all been horrified by the despicable attacks in Paris and are determined to see the defeat of ISIS.

Our first priority must be the security of Britain and the safety of the British people. The issue now is whether what the Prime Minister is proposing strengthens, or undermines, our national security.

I do not believe that the Prime Minister today made a convincing case that extending UK bombing to Syria would meet that crucial test. Nor did it satisfactorily answer the questions raised by us and the Foreign Affairs Select Committee.

In particular, the Prime Minister did not set out a coherent strategy, coordinated through the United Nations, for the defeat of ISIS. Nor has he been able to explain what credible and acceptable ground forces could retake and hold territory freed from ISIS control by an intensified air campaign.

In my view, the Prime Minister has been unable to explain the contribution of additional UK bombing to a comprehensive negotiated political settlement of the Syrian civil war, or its likely impact on the threat of terrorist attacks in the UK.

For these and other reasons, I do not believe the Prime Minister’s current proposal for air strikes in Syria will protect our security and therefore cannot support it.

The Shadow Cabinet met today for an initial discussion and debated the issues extensively. We will meet again on Monday, when we will attempt to reach a common view.

I will get in touch again when we know the timing of the debate and vote.


Jeremy Corbyn,

Leader of the Labour Party

Dissolving into Anarchy

Britain's opposition Labour Party Leader, Jeremy Corbyn, listens at the close of the Labour Party conference at Brighton, Britain, in this September 30, 2015 file photograph. Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Britain said in an article published on October 26, 2015 there was a lack of respect towards the kingdom in British public discourse that could have "potentially serious repercussions" on bilateral relations. He singled out comments by Corbyn, leader of Britain's opposition Labour Party and an outspoken critic of Saudi Arabia's human rights record, as an example of "mutual respect being breached". REUTERS/Toby Melville/files - RTX1TA1M

Gary Gibbon has two great posts on his Channel 4 blog including a revealing insight into Labour's shadow cabinet which appears to have dissolved into anarchy under Jeremy Corbyn's leadership.

Gary Gibbon on Politics

Jeremy Corbyn’s red letter day

The letter Jeremy Corbyn has sent out to MPs is intended for the attention of party members. It declares his opposition to military action in Syria.

One Labour frontbencher said: “This is war, and I’m not talking about Syria.”

One member of the Shadow Cabinet said: “How do you deal with someone like that?” 

The Shadow Cabinet member accused Jeremy Corbyn of dishonesty and attempted intimidation.The Corbyn critics in the Shadow Cabinet say the deal in the room was to “take counsel and keep counsel” over the weekend. They believe Jeremy Corbyn has gone behind their backs and broken the agreement made in the room by writing a letter that is intended to stir up his supporters in the country to lobby their MPs to back him on Syria.

Three frontbenchers told me they thought we could be approaching resignations from the Shadow Cabinet. Two frontbenchers said they thought it might calm down but blamed Seamus Milne, the newly recruited Guardian columnist now at Jeremy Corbyn’s side, and John McDonnell for coming up with a harder line that seems a world away, in their view, from the pluralistic politics Mr Corbyn himself seems to espouse.

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Politics of Equal Pay (20/08/13)

I am often drawing readers' attention to interesting and/or thought provoking article in the newspapers and here's a real doozy which lays bare the politics of Equal Pay in today's Herald - from none other than little old me!

So, go out and buy yourself a copy of the Herald, share it with your friends and use the information in the article to good effect - kick up a great fuss - for example, by posing a few awkward questions to your local councillor, MSP or MP.

Because when it comes to equal pay - Scotland's politicians, particularly its Labour politicians, have a great deal to answer for, if you ask me. 

Agenda: Political will, not economics, has stalled equal pay

There are still battles being fought on equal pay.

Earlier this week, I called on Eddie McAvoy, leader of South Lanarkshire Council, to resign after the authority lost a three-year legal battle which has cost the public purse more than £168,000 so far.

The Supreme Court in London ruled that the council wrong to withhold information from me. I wanted to check whether women workers at the authority were being discriminated against. 

The way in which Scottish councils chose to deal with equal pay has important implications for areas of social policy.

The business goes back to 1999 when a new national agreement was struck (the 1999 Single Status (Equal Pay) Agreement between Scotland's council employers and the unions. The stated aim was to sweep away years of historical pay discrimination against many female- dominated jobs which were paid much less, typically £3 an hour less, than traditional male jobs.

The way equal pay was to be achieved was by raising the pay of women workers to the same as the men. The costly price tag was around £500m a year: 90,000 women workers at £3 per hour x 30 hours a week (on average) x 52 weeks = £421m. 

You might well ask how Scotland's councils could afford to spend so much on equal pay. The answer is that the annual budgets of Scotland 32 councils and that of the Scottish Parliament doubled in size during the period between 1997 and 2007. So, money was never the problem – the problem was political will.

Because in the year 2000 Scotland's 32 local councils with the enthusiastic support of the Scottish Government, implemented a much more expensive agreement on teachers' pay, the McCrone Agreement, with a far weightier annual price tag of £800m. Now this pay deal gave Scottish teachers an unprecedented 23.5% increase in a single year, whereas other very low- paid council workers were still waiting for the promises of their 1999 Equal Pay Agreement to be honoured.

Nowadays Labour and the unions are demanding a so-called Living Wage, yet I am struck by the thought that a rate of £9 an hour could and should have been achieved years ago. Not only would this have put more money into the pockets and purses of thousands of low-paid women council workers, but equal pay would also have eliminated the need for the crazy and complex system of working tax credits.

Those who failed to keep their promises in 1999 were the Labour councils who dominated the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (Cosla) at the time and the Labour trade unions who decided not to cut up rough on behalf of their lowest-paid members. Instead this was done by Action 4 Equality Scotland (A4ES), which arrived on the scene in 2005 and began to explain the big pay differences between male and female council jobs, which led to an explosion of equal pay claims in the Employment Tribunals. 

Aome people criticise A4ES because we charge clients a success fee of 10% (not 25% as some have suggested), but I've always regarded that as great value for money. The same people wrongly claim that the unions represented their members "for nothing", which is nonsense because they were, of course, taking millions of pounds in union contributions from these members –while turning a blind eye what was going on right under their noses.

So the fight for equal pay continues because certain councils decided to preserve the historically higher pay of traditional male workers when introducing job evaluation, which means that women workers have a potential ongoing claim while these pay differences continue. 

Other councils have cynically reduced male workers' pay to avoid the likelihood of claims from women employees, yet this was never the aim of the original Equal Pay Agreement: the problem was never that men were paid too much, but that women were paid too little. 

Mark Irvine was chief union negotiator in the 1999 Scottish agreement which was meant to deliver equal pay for women.

Politics of Equal Pay (20/08/13)

I came across this article on equal pay which I missed for some reason - when it was published in The Herald back in January 2013.

Now the writer involved - Ruth Wishart - is an experienced journalist, so I was both surprised and disappointed that the piece contained so many inaccuracies and mistakes.

For a start to use the words 'pay anomalies' to describe what was going in Glasgow  back in 2005 is an abuse of the English language - as if there were just a few wrinkles here and there.

Because what was taking place in Glasgow (and elsewhere) - right under the noses of the trade unions and seasoned journalists like Ruth Wishart - was widespread pay discrimination against thousands of low paid women.

Women in caring, catering, cleaning clerical and classroom assistant jobs - who were routinely being paid thousands of pounds a year less than relatively unskilled male jobs such as refuse workers or gardeners.

When Action 4 Equality Scotland (A4ES) arrived on the scene in 2005, things began to change because we  explained to women workers exactly what was going on - and the fact that council employers and trade unions in Scotland had promised to sweep away this widespread pay discrimination as far back as 1999.

And this was during a 10 year period between 1997 and 2007 - when the budgets of councils in Scotland actually doubled in size, of course. 

But the employers and the unions failed to keep their promises which is why so many of these cases ended up in the Employment Tribunals - as union members voted with their feet and decided to pursue their equal pay claims with A4ES.

So much so that A4ES clients outnumber the trade union backed cases by a ratio of 10 to 1 - not 4 to 1 as Ruth Wishart wrongly suggests - and A4ES charges a its clients a success fee of 10% which Ruth would also know if she had bothered to check her facts.

Another glaring error is Ruth's reference to a Scottish Joint Council Job Evaluation scheme which she says was still under negotiation - but the truth is that a nationally approved Job Evaluation scheme specifically developed for Scottish councils had been available for use since 1999 - and this scheme was supported by the trade unions.

So Glasgow's decision to use a different scheme had nothing to do with choosing a quicker option - quite the opposite in fact.       
I find this all the more amazing because Ruth is (or was until recently ) a member of the Leveson Expert Group - whose advice on how to implement the Leveson Report in Scotland was quickly binned by the Scottish Government.

Yet the original Leveson Report was concerned with journalistic standards in the press and media - such as the importance of behaving with integrity and getting your facts right even when writing an opinion piece.

For example, Ruth's comment that "The unions, however dozy, went into bat for nothing" is plainly wrong - because the unions charged their low paid women members millions of pounds in contributions (membership fees) over this period - yet let them down miserably when it came to sweeping away years of pay discrimination.   

I was genuinely taken aback to such an ill-informed and unbalanced piece, so I decided to write to Ruth Wishart recently and invite her to meet with Mark Irvine and Carol Fox - to set the record straight.

Sad to say that offer wasn't taken up, but there is still an open invitation for any journalist who - like Ruth - appears to be struggling to grasp the basic rights and wrongs of equal pay.   

No easy answers in the struggle for equal pay

By Ruth Wishart (22 January 2013)

On one level it sounds so simple.

People should get the same pay for work of similar value regardless of gender. The Treaty of Rome said so way back in 1957. The UK law enshrined it when the Equal Pay Act came fully into force in 1975. What could go wrong?

Pretty well every thing as it happens. From dodgy employers in the early days who thought it smart practice to promote every single bloke on the payroll, to mass re-writing of job descriptions, to assembly lines being re-jigged to make them single sex.

And even when the rogues were rounded up, the earnings gap stubbornly persisted. Still does. But now all these years of underpayment have come back to bite cash-strapped local authorities who, not exactly obstructed by male-dominated unions, continued to preside over arrangements which turned out to be institutionally discriminatory.

A landmark judgment at the end of last year found Birmingham City Council on the wrong end of a court case brought by more than 170 women claiming back pay over six years. It is likely to open the floodgates for hundreds, if not thousands more.

Meanwhile, next month sees Glasgow City Council at a second session of an employment tribunal – there's a third scheduled for May – defending the arrangements it has come to after a process which began way back in 2005. A process which has already cost it over £50 million in compensation packages to female employees.

But this is not a straightforward tale of winners and losers, nor for that matter heroes and villains. When Glasgow City Council did its job evaluation exercise seven years ago there was no shortage of pay anomalies tumbling out of the woodwork.

As was the case with other councils, pay rates had grown up which made the casual assumption that outdoor dirty jobs like refuse collection and grave digging were intrinsically worth more than indoor manual work like cooking and cleaning. No prizes for guessing which of these categories employed more men than women and vice versa.

On top of that was an extraordinary bonus culture which widened the pay gap quite dramatically. As one executive explained "it seems that in some areas bonuses were being paid for turning up to work". And a lack of transparency around who got paid what and why meant that many of the disadvantaged women had no notion just how poorly paid they were by comparison with similar or poorer male skill levels.

The workforce pay and benefit review was designed to examine and eradicate these anomalies. Glasgow decided not to use the Scottish Joint Council Scheme still under negotiation, but used the Greater London Provincial Model on the grounds it would be a faster option than re-inventing the wheel. This entailed putting diverse jobs into 13 "job families" depending on the working context and skills.

The exercise meant higher pay for almost 25,000 employees, but loss of earnings for just under 4000. Under the deal anyone losing more than £500 would be offered skills development and there would be pay protection for three years.

The unions had several complaints about this, suggesting – among other complaints – that employees having to sign on the dotted line before being compensated for previous inequities was a form of blackmail.

But their cages were also being rattled by a new breed of specialist lawyers who saw the fight for equal pay as a lucrative niche market.

Their pitch was that on a no-win-no-fee basis they could get the women a better deal than union reps who, they suggested, had been asleep on the job in order to protect the incomes of their male membership.

Since the lawyers' cut of a successful action involved anything from 10% to 25% of the women's compensation packages, it seems somewhat disingenuous to suppose the main motive was a lofty crusade against injustice and discrimination. The unions, however dozy, went into bat for nothing.

In the event, four times as many Glasgow employees plumped for a private law firm than for Unison, though not the least of the ironies in this saga is that many of the lawyers involved had previously worked for Unison.

But, as I said, this is not a simple tale. Righting previous wrongs is important. Equal pay for work of equal value is essential. Yet all of this unfolds against a backdrop of budget cuts inevitably resulting in job losses.

It's not so much being careful what we wish for, more a dispiriting calculation on benefits versus costs.

Sunshine of Socialism

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Labour's John McDonnell looks completely out of his depth as shadow chancellor and no more so than yesterday when he made another huge gaff with his Little Red Book routine and bizarre references to Chairman Mao in responding to a government statement on public spending in the House of Commons. 

But the voters are not stupid and understand that big issues of state do not lend themselves to schoolboy jokes or this kind of petulant behaviour which, in this case, culminated in John McDonnell throwing his personal copy of the Little Red Book across the dispatch box to his opposite number, George Osborne, who will no doubt enjoy his early Christmas present - as happened with Labour's infamous 'I'm sorry, there is no money left' memo.  

McDonnell has since tried to laugh the incident off and apologised for any offence caused, as he is prone to do when caught with his political pants down, but tellingly Labour minders deleted the damaging scenes of the shadow chancellor making a fool of himself in posting the highlights of this important parliamentary occasion on the internet.  

Sunshine of Socialism (11/11/15)

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I didn't hear Kezia Dugdale deliver her leader's speech to the Scottish Labour conference at the weekend, but I read what she had to say later (see link below) and the following two sections stood out for me like a sore thumb. 

"I want to thank our brothers and sisters in the union movement for standing by us, in good times and bad. Your values are our values. We are, and always will be, the party of working people, a proud party of trade unionists."

"In Scotland nearly 350,000 families rely on the money from tax credits. The average family will be more than £100 a month worse off as a result of these changes. 70% of the money saved by this tax rise on working people will come from the pockets of working mothers."

Now back in the year 2000 when the Scottish Government was Labour-led, Jack McConnell (then education minister) signed-off on a new pay deal for Scotland's teachers (the McCrone Agreement) at a cost of £800 million a year.

The McCrone Agreement was fully funded which meant that no specific productivity gains were demanded from the teaching workforce in return for a 23.5% increase in pay in a single year; the agreement having been struck by a triumvirate comprising the Scottish Government, Labour-led COSLA and the teaching trade unions.

A year earlier, the big three public sector trade unions (Unison, GMB and Unite) along with the council employers reached what was hailed at the time as a landmark agreement on equal pay - the 1999 Single Status Agreement which promised a 'new deal' for tens of thousands of low paid women's jobs: carers, cleaners, classroom assistants, clerical and catering workers.

But unlike the McCrone Agreement the 1999 Single Status Agreement was not fully funded and in the years that followed the council employers and the trade unions simply allowed the landmark deal to wither on the vine, even though in the 10 year period between 1997 to 2007 the budgets of councils in Scotland virtually doubled.

What happened, in effect, was that the interests of 70,000 teachers were given a much higher priority than those of over 100,000 of the lowest paid workers in Scottish local government, the great irony being that thew two groups are both council workers and employed by Scotland's 32 local councils.

The cost of implementing the 1999 Single Status Agreement, in full, was put at £450 million a year compared to the £800 million price tag attached to the teachers' McCrone Agreement and the added advantage of the Single Status Agreement was that it would have ended low pay in Scottish local government by raising the lowest hourly rate of pay towards £9.00 an hour - thereby eliminating the need for working family tax credits.

The cost to low paid council workers of not implementing 1999 Agreement amounted to thousands of pounds a year for full-time workers, i.e. much more than the £100 a month refereed to by Kecia Dugdale in the section of her speech about tax credits.   

The 'rainbow coalition' collectively responsible for this historic failure to tackle low pay were the Labour-led Scottish Government of the day, Labour-led COSLA, the big Labour-led councils (in Glasgow and Lanarkshire for example), and the Labour-supporting trade unions who failed to stand up for their lowest paid members when the chips were down.  

So if that's what's meant by the 'sunshine of socialism', my name's Jeremy Corbyn.


Empty Words (31/10/15)

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Jeremy Corbyn is up in Scotland for the Scottish Labour Party conference and yesterday delivered his first 'leader's speech' which I found dull and boring because it was full of vacuous words like these:

"To me, socialism is simple. It’s about everyone caring for everyone else.

"This is a kinder, more caring politics … we don’t compete, we co-operate.

"But it is a politics fired by our passion for fighting injustice, in our belief that an injury to one is an injury to all … the concept of solidarity."

Now I don't remember Jeremy, or the kind of people who share his politics, having anything of significance to say during the fight for equalpauy that has been raging in Scotland over the past 10 years.

In fact, some of the worst offenders have been the big Labour councils who presided over pay arrangements that discriminated against female dominated jobs: carers, classroom assistants, cleaners, clerical and catering workers.

Not only that, of course, because the Labour-supporting trade unions were often in cahoots with the employers and in some cases actively discouraged their members from pursuing claims for equal pay.

Socialist, my arse.