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Gregg's Special Offer

Gregg McClymont has opened a new front in the ‘cost of living’ debate. His vow to end ‘rip off’ workplace pensions has upset the indus...

 

Words: Paul Waugh

Photos: Paul Heartfield 


 

Gregg McClymont loves Gregory’s Girl. Born and bred in Cumbernauld, the new town that forms the backdrop for the classic 1980s movie, he attended the high school where most of the action takes place. If you look closely, the trained eye can even spot his parents’ house on screen.

The coming-of-age story of a slightly gauche, football-loving Scot won the hearts of millions cinemagoers and launched the careers of its young stars. Rooted in the home town that he now represents in Parliament, McClymont too is in many ways a child of the 80s.

His political worldview shaped by an “instinctive” reaction against Margaret Thatcher’s Governments, the MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintillock East sees the downsides and the upsides of his formative decade.

And as Shadow Pensions Minister, the errors of Tory-led administrations both past and present seem to be guiding his oversight of Labour’s policies on provision for retirement.

Appointed to his current post in 2011, at the tender age of just 35, McClymont has already ruffled feathers in the industry, making clear this will be yet another area to deliver on Ed Miliband’s vow to end ‘business as usual’.

A history graduate and former Oxford don (he’s still a visiting fellow at Nuffield College), he’s unafraid of the wonkery or minutiae of annuities or defined benefits. Yet he admits that he knew little about his current area before being handed the job by his leader.

“When I came into the pensions brief, I didn’t know much more about pensions than anyone else. I had paid into a pension when I was an academic, knew it was half decent, came in here and did the same. But beyond that, I’ve brought fresh eyes to it and I’ve learnt a lot in the last two and a half years,” he says.

“There is no doubt that pensions is important. As a social democratic politician, it’s critical because security in retirement is critical for everyone and pensions are a form of collective risk-sharing. It’s also important because it’s a form of deferred wages at a time when things are tight on the cost of living and wages are compressed. And more widely, it takes you into that debate around how do we make our financial economy work for the benefit of the many and not the few. On the asset management side, pensions [policy] is directly related to the debates around long termism versus short termism.”

After several months in post, McClymont says “it became very clear to me very quickly the extent of the market failure” in workplace pensions and decided it was time for radical solutions. A special voter ‘offer’ was needed on yet another ‘cost of living’ issue. At a Press Gallery lunch in 2012, Miliband declared war on ‘pensions rip offs’ and Labour produced a policy paper designed to cut ‘hidden’ costs. The OFT launched its own inquiry and McClymont says that the regulator’s analysis and critique “is almost entirely the same as the one that I and others have been putting out there”.

“All the cards lie with the providers and the saver/consumers have no bargaining power to bring to the table.” As with lots about pensions, the reasons are complex but Labour claims it’s partly because the employers buy the pensions but the employees are the beneficiaries.

Another reason is the ‘tension’ pensions companies have between a duty to maximise shareholder value and an FCA obligation to treat customers fairly. McClymont says he has an answer. “The OFT report was excellent, the analysis superb but in my opinion not strong enough on the need for independent governance. If you are going to solve the problem of ensuring how the savers’ interests are properly represented, there has to be independent governance…It’s about redesigning the market. If you’ve got a problem in a market, it comes from misaligned incentives. You have to realign the incentives. There’s always a danger of vested interests having too much influence.”

Is the pensions industry similar to others criticised by Labour, such as the Big Six energy firms?

“You have massive scale on the provider side, but the reason they have that massive scale, like Energy, is because it is vertically integrated. Often the fund management and the pension provider are the same people. The pension provider takes your money and then they give it to the asset managers, but often they are the same people. So in the big life insurance companies are huge asset managers, Legal and General, Aviva and so on.”

He says that a potential difference with Big Energy, however, is that there are “lots of interests” in the pensions industry who want to see radical reform.

“One part of the industry is the large insurers, represented by the ABI and big household names. There are lots of other players in the industry, the National Association of Pension Funds, who would have a different view on a lot of things. You have actuaries, pension consultants, pension lawyers, so there’s a lot of different parts of the industry.”

For years, private and workplace pensions have received little coverage, both because they can be complex to explain and because not everyone had one. The Coalition’s decision to fast-track auto-enrolment, forcing all workers to sign up, has changed the debate dramatically.

“The reason why the public interest is so pressing is because once you turn workplace pensions into a mass pensions market with 10 million people likely to be enrolled by 2017, then you have a huge political issue. Because you can be sure that those 10 million people are going to be insisting that Government and regulators make sure that they are getting value for money.”

 

 

McClymont says that while Steve Webb has been “very, very surefooted” on the complexities of the state pension system, “the evidence is, certainly since I’ve been shadowing that brief, he’s much less surefooted on the workplace private pensions.”

Webb tried to compete with Labour by saying he wanted a “full-frontal assault” on pension firm charges and the idea of a cap. But he then backed off, saying a delay would be needed to get the policy right. “Like with all these things, the devil is in the detail,” McClymont says. “It’s not just the level of the cap, it’s what’s included in the cap. As things stand, that’s not being delivered.”

Did Webb cave in to industry pressure? “‘Blind spot’ is probably a good term. I suspect he assumed that things that need to be done on the auto-enrolment side were much more limited than actually they are. Because there wasn’t an understanding of the extent of market failure.”

McClymont fights shy of calling the industry a cartel, even though 70% of assets are held by just four insurance companies. He has, however, had several clashes with the Association of British Insurers over his plans. “It’s natural that an industry which benefits from a market structured in such a way will want to defend that market share and the profits,” he says. “That’s life. You need to be strong enough as a politician, as a party, as a government to see that interest for what it is. It’s legitimate, but only one interest and not necessarily the same as the public interest. But they can’t be allowed to stand in the way of the public interest.”

Taking his lead from Ed Miliband’s conference speech on competition, he adds that “if there’s a problem in the market, one can’t expect the market to sort that problem itself”. “It has to come from Government. And I certainly would say that about the pensions market. That’s where my exploration of this for the last two and a half years leads me to think. You can’t expect the industry to solve these problems. The lead has to come from Government.”

McClymont has recently found himself in an alliance with those Conservatives who want markets to work more efficiently. People like Lord Lawson have pushed for greater transparency on fees to help guide the consumer.

The danger of failing to reassure the public is ever-present, he says.

“Getting in place a buy-in from those who have been enrolled and starting to rebuild that confidence in pensions is why I’m very clear about the urgency of ensuring that everyone is getting value for money. Because if they’re not, then people are being automatically enrolled in something by Government and then they may turn round and say ‘you’ve automatically enrolled me in something where I’m being ripped off’. We can’t have that.”

Many critics say that Gordon Brown was himself to blame for undermining the defined benefits pensions of the country with his £100bn tax raid in 1997. But McClymont says he’s “bullish” in response.

“You have to take pensions in the round. As a Scottish Labour MP, from a constituency with a lot of pensioners who in ’97 are living in absolute poverty after the breaking of the earnings link. What does Labour do? They bring in Pension Credit. Pension Credit is one of the most significant things the last Labour Governments ever did but it does not get the attention it deserves.

“Since Pension Credit was introduced nearly £75bn has been redistributed to the poorest pensioners. Nearly £8bn in the last year. In Scotland, the outcome of that was that pensioner poverty was reduced by two thirds. In the UK as a whole by 1.3 million. Central to any Labour government’s mission must be to improve the lives of the poorest. Is there any better example of social democracy in action than sharing the resources of the UK and redistributing them to the poorest pensioners?”

He points out that the Coalition set its new flat-rate pension at just a pound above £144. “Labour created a new minimum for the poorest pensioners and the Government’s used that as their base.”

“At my first election in 2010, I go to the Pensioners Club in Kirkintilloch in my constituency. I go on stage, I’ve got my speech all carefully prepared, start to unfurl it, but before I even speak a pensioner shouts from the nearest table ‘Son, you don’t need to tell us what Gordon Brown did for us’.”

But couldn’t Labour have tackled pensioner poverty without the tax raid? He replies that the real problem was a combination of mistaken estimates by actuaries of longevity, contributions holidays allowed by the 1980s Tory Governments, as well as the drive to private pensions.

“Really significant in this was the dogma of the Thatcher Government’s encouraging people to move to private personal pensions rather than occupational schemes.

“No longer could your employer mandate membership of a good occupational pension scheme. We had a flurry of scandals, all these people being paid to go into companies to tell people ‘you’re paying that much contribution to this employer? Come into this scheme, you will pay less, you will get more’ – that led directly to the mis-selling scandals that undermined so much confidence.”

Another key issue is the fast-tracking of a higher retirement age. McClymont is sympathetic to the problems this poses for manual workers, many of whom can’t work to 70. “Only the Labour Party is really going to grapple that,” he says. “It’s not straightforward, it’s a social inequality problem, but there are systems. What some countries do is they have systems where it’s years of contribution rather than an age.”

McClymont’s own short years of contribution to the political scene, rather than his age, have already made an impact at Westminster. But why did he choose politics over an academic career? “There were always certain things I believed in very strongly and the chance to argue for those things and maybe make them happen, while representing the people where you come from, was very, very attractive,” he says.

This September, McClymont has another milestone to pass: he’s getting married to his fiancée, a Cypriot research consultant. His father, who fought in the Second World War, will be there at the ceremony in Nicosia. “He’s 92, but he’s fit. Although the Cypriots don’t know what’s coming because they aren’t great drinkers so they always have a free bar at a wedding…” ‘Gregg’s girl’ and her family, like the pensions industry, had better watch out.   

 

GREGG ON…PENSIONS

“I think pensions are a good thing. The question is, how do you make sure they work properly. I want to save pensions, not bury them.”

GREGG ON…CROSS-PARTY CONSENSUS

“The consensus holds but the credibility of the Government in delivering the things which are needed to maintain consensus is seriously under threat.”

GREGG ON…AUTO-ENROLMENT

“We have to have public consent for a mass workplace pension system and that’s a big task in itself.”

GREGG ON…THE ASSOCIATION OF BRITISH INSURERS

“They set out their view. I say to them why I disagree with them, and then we go separate ways. You’ve got to keep talking, my door is open to anyone.”

GREGG ON…WEBB’S ‘EXCESS PROFITS’ ANNUITIES ATTACK

“If you’re going to go on TV and say that, you’d better have a policy to reduce the excess profits. And there is no policy.” 

 

 

 

Battle for Britain

Iain Duncan Smith says his mission to reform welfare is not just about saving money, but saving lives. The combat-tested Work and Pens...

 

Words: Paul Waugh

Photos: Paul Heartfield 

 

Iain Duncan Smith is admiring a portrait of one of his ancestors on his office wall. Amid impressive oil paintings of seascapes, hangs a sketch of Admiral Adam Duncan, who defeated the Dutch fleet in the Battle of Camperdown in 1797. Duncan was “not an ostentatious man at all”, IDS points out, but managed to cope with a mutiny within his ranks and used his guile to outwit a bigger enemy. “Nelson always said that it was he who had taught him more about tactics than anyone else. He’s one of the forgotten naval heroes of the Napoleonic war.”

Unpretentious, doggedly determined and tested in battle by both his own side and the opposition, Duncan Smith seems to share at least some of the family traits of his distinguished forefather.

And the Work and Pensions Secretary is quick to point out that the right tactics and strategy are just as essential in his own field. “As they say, politics is war without the death…” he says, smiling.

Reports of IDS’s own political death have been much exaggerated over the years. After his brief tenure as Conservative Party leader, he quietly rebuilt his career with a crusade for welfare reform, before being rewarded with his current post in 2010. Battle-scarred by both his time in Opposition and in Government, he’s still flying the flag for radical change while trying to deliver big cuts in the welfare budget. From the Universal Credit to the ‘bedroom tax’, allies and critics alike recognise that he’s in this for the long haul.

Duncan Smith often says that his mission is to ‘save lives, not just save money’. He insists that “the number one priority of the economy” is to get the deficit down and cutting welfare is a key part of that. “But it’s also important that you do that by reforming the system so that those who are in the system are essentially rewarded for the right behaviour and no longer does the system perversely reward behaviour that is destructive,” he says.

“So this is what the housing benefit changes are about, it’s what the Universal Credit when it comes in will do, this is essentially what the reforms of sickness benefits will do. None of these are easy, but they are important because if all we did was just cut the welfare system, then every time that happens it balloons later on as you don’t change the nature of what the demand is. If you change the nature of the demand, you have a much better chance of keeping control over the welfare budget as you run into the future.”

Warming to his theme of the link between a healthy economy and welfare reform, he goes on: “What the Left does all the time is they conjure up an idea that you’ve slashed benefits. If you want to look at a country that has really slashed benefits, go to Ireland. The reason they’ve had to do that is because they didn’t have the resources and support to be able to get through their recession without having to go and borrow money.”

Duncan Smith points out that at the end of this Parliament he’ll have got spending back to the level of around 2008, before the crash hiked up the bills. Before his reforms to housing benefit, the bill was set to rise by £5bn alone.

One of the most controversial reforms has, of course, been the ‘spare room subsidy’ for council and other social housing tenants. The key has been to change both councils and tenants’ behaviour, he says. “Under social housing, when I inherited it, there was no value to this. It didn’t matter what house they built and it didn’t matter what kind of family they put into a house. No one cared.

“So the result is we’ve got families, half a million of them, living in houses where there are spare rooms. Now we can debate and argue about this on the margins, but the truth is that’s a fact of life. My point is we can’t go on paying and subsidising a council to just put families in houses that they don’t completely utilise, unless either those families make a greater contribution or the council themselves organises the housing so that you get value.

 “We’ve got a quarter of a million overcrowded homes, often two to three kids in a room, dying for it and no one ever talks about them. The only way we could drive council staff to start focusing on this was to say ‘I’m not going to pay any longer for the rooms that are not occupied’.”

So is the true measure of success going to be how many people have been removed from the housing list rather than how many more people pay the ‘bedroom tax’?

“I want some behavioural change, but most of all I want councils to value their council property and the rents so they actually manage that property better,” he says. “The measurement of success is, first of all, that we end up not having to subsidise people in spare rooms. So in other words we get financial control of this. There’s significant sums of money in this, going on £500m a year. And most of that’s paid by average taxpayers – not by upper rate taxpayers – who are often themselves having to make choices about housing.

“If you go to the private sector you don’t find too many people earning with kids who have lots of spare rooms because they make choices about where they live and they afford it. The choices that people make in work must be the same as those who make choices out of work, otherwise they’ll never choose to go back to work.”

Duncan Smith wants more ‘house swaps’ and more town halls building the right kind of homes. “For example, 61% of the level of housing demand right now is for one-bed room properties, but councils continue to build three-bedrooom plus properties. They’ve known about this reform for three years before it came in…Many of them made absolutely no effort whatsoever and then they moaned and complained on the arrival of the policy as though it was drafted the day before.”

The rise of the use of foodbanks has been another focus for criticism and controversy. IDS is adamant that his reforms are “not the main driver” and that the greater publicity has been a factor. As for delays in benefit that some blame for leaving families reliant on food charity, he says they’ve been cut “dramatically”. “Something like 96% now get their benefits on time, whereas before it was just under 90%. It’s improved. If it’s improving, then where would the driver be? It’s not.”

As for the way the Coalition has overseen a rise in sanctions or cuts in benefits for those claimants who break the rules, he’s unrepentant. “In most cases people get lots of warning. And there are reviews of the sanctions. The reality is these are about choices. People get sanctioned on Job Seeker’s Allowance because they did not do what they were asked.

“I’ve been in these Job Centres and I can tell you now categorically that no adviser that I’ve ever seen just wilfully sanctions somebody for no reason. You’ll find that sitting behind this is a long tail of ‘I told you to do this, why haven’t you done it?’ ‘This was on your claimant commitment which you are now signing’.  When people come to food banks and so ‘oh, I got sanctioned for nothing’, often when we’ve checked back, that’s not the case.

“They’ll never say the real reason. Sometimes people didn’t just get their stuff in in time, the delay they are referring to is when they’d like to have to benefit versus when they actually made the application.” 

None of that has stopped Vincent Nichols, the Catholic Archbishop of Westminster and Cardinal-designate, from branding IDS’s reforms ‘a disgrace’. The Secretary of State is as equally robust in his response, pointing out that food banks are the embodiment of Christian charity. “I’m in favour of decent people, who want to help, doing what they think needs to be done to help…To my view, it’s part of the whole process. This also surprised me about the Church that they somehow felt that having a food bank was a problem. I actually think having a food bank is part of what people want to do to help people out of difficulty. Instead of laying the finger of blame and saying ‘it’s Government’, the truth is society is trying to fill a gap somewhere.”

IDS also suggests that the clerics were silent over the 2008 crash. “What is missing from all of these critics is the admission that actually the biggest single driver of problems for families is the fact that we’ve just come through a staggeringly large recession, the Great Recession, is how we should describe it. Of course Labour doesn’t want to admit that because it happened on their watch and others don’t want to admit it because somehow that helps explain it.”

Should the church now recognise it? “They’ve never once mentioned it in anything they’ve ever said. My main role is to restore a sense of security to people and a sense of a future for their children, taking the decisions we’ve taken are part of doing that. Which is beginning to yield dividends. But never once do I hear from any of the critics on this an admission that the issues around the problems that Britain had start with the crash.”

A quick briefing for the clerical critics “would show they basically got almost all their facts wrong”. But as a Catholic, did he feel personally wounded by Archbishop Nichols’ remarks? “He’s entitled to his views. As a Catholic I don’t put my faith in the way of anything like that. He can do what he likes, I don’t have any ownership over his comments or he for that matter over mine. I just thought it was a bit peculiar to have couched it in the terms they couched it in – but never once having come to see us at all. In fact I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone from the Catholic hierarchy.”

He adds: “Listen, my door is always open. To be fair to the present Archbishop [of Canterbury] he’s been in to see me, we’ve talked on the telephone, I don’t always agree with the rest of his bishops but we have a good relationship. I think he’s a reasonable man. That’s Welby by the way, not the Catholic Archbishop who has now become Cardinal, because I’ve actually never heard from him.” 

 

 

As for the growth in food banks and their usage, IDS insists it's not down to his changes. "Welfare reform is not the main driver for food banks. One would be that now there are more food banks being set up than ever before so people are more aware of it, they’ve been more in the news.

“We advertise them in the Job Centres unlike the last government, so that helps people know where they are. Trussell Trust, they are an acquisitive food bank, they actually take over a number of food banks, they badge them so when you say food banks have increased, some of that is food banks that existed, badged now as Trussell Trust. They’ve already said they intend to have food banks in every single area, so there’s been a big growth”

And what about complaints that delays in getting benefits are to blame? "On delays, we’ve cut the length of delays dramatically. Something like 96% now get their benefits on time, whereas before it was just under 90%," he replies.

It’s not just Labour and the Church who dish out the brickbats, the DWP invariably has a demonstration outside its London HQ every other week from disabled campaigners and others. Has he had to develop a thick skin?

“I just know what we’ve got to do ultimately will improve the lives of people. If I doubted that for one moment I couldn’t put up with what I do every day. But I believe in it. I believe passionately that what I’m doing is the right thing.

“Do you get a thicker skin? No, I don’t think you ever get a thicker skin, you just kind of keep going because it’s the right thing to do. No one ever likes being called names etcetera but, as I know, names are not that important at the end of the day.”

IDS has had to suffer some ‘friendly fire’ too. Matthew D’Ancona’s book on the Coalition claimed that George Osborne felt the Work and Pensions Secretary was ‘not clever enough’ for his post. Sir John Major told a Press Gallery lunch last year that IDS “may be genius but last time I looked it was unproven”. How does he deal with such slights, real or imagined?

He says Major later suggested he’d been misinterpreted, but is happy to respond. “I don’t mind really, it doesn’t bother me at all. I never really care what people say or think. Everyone has their axe to grind. People grind them away.

“All sorts of things are said about all sorts of people. I’m in quite good company here, the two people who were actually told they were not intelligent enough to cope with this were Mrs Thatcher – she was told she didn’t understand what she was doing by Enoch Powell – and Winston Churchill was regularly told that he wasn’t intelligent enough to understand anything he did from an early year.

“I don’t compare myself to the two of them but I simply say honestly, snap judgements like that are invariable not what people remember. What they remember is ‘did we get the job done?’ And this has never been about me personally anyway.”

Despite claims of opposition from the Treasury and Liberal Democrats, Duncan Smith’s appetite for further reform appears undimmed. He says that a new measure of child poverty is still on the agenda, because the current measure “has no connection with work, no behavioural change”. “You’ve got to see life change in their lives. So trajectory is the word that I use. You’ve got to find a way of measuring trajectory…If somebody has no qualifications, comes from a difficult family, in a difficult area, then that looks like to me the trajectory is flat or possibly going down, that’s where you need to focus your work to get them above the line.”

Will that cost more money? "It’s expensive at the moment to do it this way. It will certainly not be any more expensive. I would suspect it will be a lot less expensive. But what will happen is that those who really need the help will get much greater levels of help.”

“What we are all agreed on or trying to get to is a measure that gives us a much better way of measuring people who are in poverty and likely to remain in poverty.

“I am the one actually that stopped any kind of measure going out because I didn’t think we were right. Because after discussions with everybody I just didn’t think there was any point putting out a half baked measure. What we needed to do was complete that process. We need more data. And in some areas the data has never been collected so this is a slight problem and it takes longer to do. So I’m content where we are. I think we have to reach that point whether we reach it within this Government, which I hope but certainly whoever gets in power next, us I hope, I believe will actually reach that conclusion.”

So it might not happen this Parliament? “I think it will. It’s going to happen, because this present measure completely distorts the way you spend money. It has no connection with work, no behavioural change."

Restricting child benefit to just two children is another idea the party has been testing out in focus groups. “It’s part of a debate about what do you do about a system that seems within it to support a process where people get larger families and there’s a very expensive cost to it. 

"That one measure alone scores very high up the measure of popularity because the average number of children in families is two or just under. The highest number per family you have at the top two deciles and at the bottom two deciles." As for the manifesto, he says: "All I’m saying is we’ve got a debate. We will eventually decide what’s in and what’s out.”

On ending universal elderly benefits like winter fuel allowance and TV licences, he’s also pleased with progress beyond 2015. “The Chancellor has made it clear that they go into the welfare cap. So straight away they will be looked at in the same way as other benefits. Whether we have a specific view on those is a matter for the manifesto.”

But IDS is keen to stress that the ‘triple lock’ and single-tier state pension has helped those in retirement. “I’ve always maintained that during the recession one of the groups that gets hardest hit is elderly people because they can’t change their income. Their income is fixed, they’ve often had to buy annuities at very poor rates. You have to recognise that when you deal with pensioners, that they have much less flexibility, much less scope. They are very vulnerable to big changes in the economy, they’ve done their bit, they’ve retired, made their savings.”

Polls show that many pensioners, like other voters, are tempted by UKIP in the coming May elections. One minister recently claimed it should be made as socially ‘embarrassing’ to admit to voting UKIP as to admit to voting BNP. But IDS doesn’t agree. “I don’t think it’s up to us to do that. I think that you’ll see that the public will make their own mind up about this. The Euro election is the Euro election, you can protest in the Euros, they are very important, but the public doesn’t still think that so I suspect we will see a lot of protesting. But in the run-in to an [general] election, I think people have got to recognise who they are voting for and what they stand for and what you get after it.”

Many Tory MPs are nevertheless nervous of the UKIP vote, with some ready to hit out if there’s a very bad result. Loyalty used to be seen as the Tory Party’s ‘secret weapon’, but IDS is deadpan about that claim. “I sometimes think it was a pretty big secret…as William [Hague] and myself will tell you,” he smiles, wearily. “And Michael Howard, at times, or Mrs T even. I think there’s been almost too much made of that really. In fact parties need to hang together. Because we don’t have a PR system, that means essentially that parties like the Labour party and the Conservative party are coalitions.”

“You don’t always agree with each other on everything but by and large you agree on the same philosophy and the same values etcetera. So it’s always a case of saying ‘well, it’s a trade off’. And I just think we need to rediscover that this needs to be countenanced in a much more balanced way at times.

"But the party in the last few months has been much more settled. And I think that as we go through to the Euros and afterwards, you’ll see a Conservative Party that focuses on the fact that we have an election coming up and basically we have one single message to get across to the public. It’s that we had a long term economic plan and it’s delivering.”

“We are delivering on welfare, we’ve capped it. we got the deficit down, we’ve got immigration still coming down (and I know that’s a difficult measure), improving schools, all these simple messages and who’s the party that offers a referendum. Only the Tories can give you a referendum after the next election.”

“The trouble is in Parliament people think ‘well, we’ve said all that’. But I’ve seen polls that say when you test them out ‘do you know any of this stuff coming from the Conservative party?’ most say 'No' they don’t because people often get their news coming in bite-sized bits. So it means you’ve got to keep on focusing on the simple message: families to be more secure, with a greater chance for their kids to get on, a long term economic plan is the route to delivering that and we are the only party that can deliver that. And if you care about Europe at all, this is the party that will actually deliver you a chance to make a choice at a set time.”

With migration a key worry for UKIP voters, Duncan Smith says Home Office Minister James Brokenshire was right to warn that people ‘at the bottom end’ felt its impacts more than others.

“That is the issue. People that I deal with every day, they feel very squeezed by people who come in, undercut them in price. I was in a Job Centre at the time of the Olympics in my area of Waltham Forest. We were in the Olympic boroughs and there’s a big debate about how much work actually went to those boroughs. I was talking to a plumber and a carpenter, trained, qualified individuals. And I asked them about the Olympic sites. And they said ‘They’re all or mostly people coming in from Eastern Europe who undercut us because they all hotbed in these areas and then they’re gone. I can’t compete with them on this because I’ve got a house, I’ve got kids, I’ve got commitments, there’s only so far I can go on salary, otherwise it’s worse for me than being on benefits’.

"I think there’s been a big change so that now more jobs are going to British workers than went originally. That is the beginning of a change, but I’m very keen to thrash that out to ‘try one of our unemployed people first before you go anywhere else’.”

As for the criticism that IDS can’t understand what it’s like for millions on the breadline or on benefit, he has a ready answer.

“I don’t understand that because I’ve been unemployed,” he says. “We didn’t have smart Job Centres in those days. I’ve been made redundant when I thought my career was heading in the right direction. I know what it’s like to be without work, without an income, worried about what you are going to do. I had a family and kids at that stage, things were a little difficult, interest rates had jacked up. The economy wasn’t looking great. It was under Nigel Lawson, I remember categorically worrying about where that went.

“And I remember when I came out of the Army, I didn’t come out into work. I had to go searching for work. And I did. I went to the library, I got the stock market yearbook out, I wrote to people, names.  I spent all day writing; I must have written hundreds of letters to people, asking for jobs. We didn’t have universal job match then, I had to look in the newspapers, I applied for every job. I didn’t inherit vast great monies at all, any monies really, so the money that I’ve had has been the money that I’ve worked for.”

And ultimately, it’s that sense of determination that has seen him stick with a reform agenda that started back with his tour of Easterhouse in Glasgow in 2002.

“I feel very strongly that I’m right on this. And if there’s one thing that I’m taught about all of this is that when you believe that passionately you have to keep going. I keep trying to sell the message that we are doing the right thing. Public opinion is by and large on our side on this so I just think that we are winning the battle, but it’s still not easy.  I’m content to see what history’s judgement of me will be, not what my contemporaries think of me. Politics is a silly game.”

Politics is indeed warfare without bloodshed. But like his naval ancestor, Duncan Smith is unafraid of battle, whether it’s in his personal or political life. His allies certainly hope he’ll win the war. 

 

IDS ON…WELFARE REFORM  

"It's about improving their security, knowing there's a way out, a way up, that they can actually improve their lives." 

IDS ON…HOUSING BENEFIT CUTS  

"We didn't do it in a harsh way, we've tried to do it in a way that makes logical sense and gets it under control."

IDS ON…FOOD BANKS  

'We are not responsible for food banks, that policy area generally is Cabinet Office and so it should remain. I'm happy for people to visit food banks, I don't have a particular problem with them." 

IDS ON…CHILD BENEFIT CAP FOR TWO CHILDREN  

"It's part of a debate about a process where people get larger families and there's a very expensive cost to it. These ideas amongst the general public are enormously popular." 

IDS ON…CHILD POVERTY REDEFINITION  

"I just didn't think there was any point putting out a half-baked measure. It's going to happen, because this present measure completely distorts the way you spend money." 

IDS ON…UKIP 

"I don't lecture anybody about howthey vote, I just wish they would vote Conservative because I think we have the best platform."  

 

 

 

Iain Martin: The politics of friendship

The bonds at the top of the Tory party are fascinating – not least because the PM’s closest allies are now preparing for life after he...

 

Do not look for it. It’s not online anymore. In the recent purge – or tidying up – of the Conservative Party’s online videos and speeches from before the 2010 general election, the webcameron footage of David Cameron pelting Michael Gove with snowballs seems to have vanished.

The incident actually happened and was filmed, although not for posterity it would appear. In opposition, the Tory leader and the Shadow Education Secretary were due to unveil TV personality Carol Vorderman as Tory Maths Tsar as part of their mission to “drive up standards in schools”.  

Heavy snow was falling; journalists had been delayed. Team Cameron decided to go out, with Ms Vorderman, to Victoria Tower Gardens in order to play in the snow. Half a decade ago the internet still had a certain novelty, and a team from CCHQ followed the Tory leader almost everywhere, recording footage that would go into his online videos.

Cameron is ultra-competitive. He hates to lose, whether the game is general elections, tennis or snowball fights. With the camera rolling, he started throwing snowballs. Gove, one of the most courteous men in politics, is a bookish type and not a natural thrower of snowballs. He danced about, trying to dodge the flying, compacted snow propelled in his direction by his friend, the leader of the Conservative Party.

After some more of this, Cameron stopped. It was as though, one of the CCHQ staffers said to me afterwards, he’d realised suddenly that it looked like bullying and exploiting his position. And even if Gove had been a skilled thrower, he would have had to be very brave in career terms to risk hitting his leader between the eyes on camera.

The close friendship between Cameron and Gove was a fascinating feature of the Tory modernising era and it has been one of the defining relationships in Government. They agree, mostly, on education policy but have a healthy, good natured disagreement on foreign policy. Gove is a neo-conservative interventionist, a creed of which Cameron is inherently sceptical. More broadly, Cameron, it is said by insiders, pays little attention to his friend’s political advice, which seems like a missed opportunity as Gove is an astute analyst and strategist.

Of late their friendship has been tested severely. Earlier this month the Education Secretary gave an interview to The Financial Times in which he criticised the dominance of Old Etonians in Cameron’s inner circle. Of course, Gove made the point to illustrate the urgent need for education reforms that might improve social mobility. Gove may also have been pointing out that Boris Johnson – the man he wants to prevent becoming leader after Cameron – went to Eton, whereas Gove’s candidate, George Osborne, attended St Paul’s.

Either way, the Prime Minister was furious and gave Gove the verbal equivalent of ten snowballs fired at close range. This was a mistake, and Cameron owes his old friend an apology. Gove was right. He had made a perfectly valid observation about the ludicrous domination of one, or a handful, of schools in the national life, only to be thrashed as though he was a fag at Eton who had burnt an older pupil’s toast.

Cameron, it was reported, wanted no more freelance politicking, especially by those he trusts as close friends. He expects loyalty. But that Gove should feel liberated enough to speak out, and that others are also engaging in assorted other leadership shenanigans, says a great deal.

If Cameron loses the general election there could be a contest in only 14 months or so. Even those who want Cameron to win know that if he does manage it, commendably he and his family do not want to go on and on for years, being driven slowly mad by being in office. Psychologically, this is an interesting moment for the Tories. Even the Prime Minister’s friends are starting to prepare for life after Cameron.   

 

Iain Martin is a political commentator  

 


Legacy of Hope

Labour’s Michael Meacher pays tribute to left-wing veteran Tony Benn, a politician who went from being derided as ‘the most dangerous ...

 

Like all prophets down the ages, Tony Benn was widely misunderstood, misrepresented and vilified in his own generation. But the ideas for which he stood – democracy against corporate domination, national sovereignty against globalisation, transparency of the workings of power, accountability of all institutions, and the rights of the industrial working class against an oppressive economic system – will live on after him and are as vibrant today as when he first entered public life.

Like prophets before him, Tony Benn asked uncomfortable questions and challenged a cosy consensus in which too many of his colleagues were cocooned. At its most poignant he would continually press whether the Labour Party was really fulfilling the role for which it was founded, and whether its MPs and trade union leaders were really accountable to those they represented.

It was this commitment to these ideals of openness and activist power which lay behind the goals he was already advocating as early as the Llandudno Welsh Council of Labour in 1968 – freedom of information, local (electronic) referenda, media regulation and regional development.

Fundamental to Benn’s beliefs was his insight that real and lasting social change only came about by pressure from below; Parliament’s role was largely to ratify what was already inevitable. That is certainly proving to be true of the biggest issue today in contemporary politics – the clinging on by all three main political parties to the irretrievably and irreversibly broken system of neoliberal free market capitalism.

The public is deeply opposed to a harsh, unjust and seemingly endless austerity and to its exploitation by a greedy and selfish 1% super-rich, or even more by the 0.1% and 0.01% within it. But it seems that nothing much is likely to occur on that score until there is an explosion on the streets, like the anti-poll tax riots that brought down Thatcher. Benn would have understood that all too well, and agitated to bring it about.

It was that which led him to support many strikes and acts of civil disobedience. His dramatic intervention in 1971 for the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders’ strike forced Heath to reverse his deflationary policies and begin to pull down unemployment below the million figure. Such efforts were not always successful: his support for the Pentonville Five shop stewards in 1972 didn’t prevent them from being jailed for rejecting a court order to stop them picketing a container depot. But it put down a marker re-connecting the Labour Party with its working class base.

The NUM strike in 1984-5 was a turning point both industrially and politically, and Benn lent it his wholehearted support. It is only now becoming fully clear how far the illicit machinations of a semi-militaristic state were brought to bear to thwart the legitimate rights of a trade union opposing the wholesale closure of the mines.

The strike failed, but just as the Astbury Judgement and the Trade Disputes and Trade Union Act 1927 led ultimately to the full reinstatement of the unions’ role in industrial life by the Attlee Government of 1945-51, so the illegitimate use of the instruments of tyranny against the miners three decades ago may yet see again the restoration of the unions to their central role within industry and the economy.

Benn also realised that the Labour Party would only ever fulfil its fundamental role in championing the industrial working class if power was shared between the PLP and the NEC, constituency parties, trade unions and annual conference. But the devolving of power to the grassroots and in particular the Wembley conference in 1980 on the electoral college to elect the leader proved too much for the right wing of the party who defected to set up their own party, the SDP, which soared and then crashed.

It is often said that this split, for which Benn (on a very lopsided view) was held responsible, paved the way for the Thatcherite ascendancy. This is nonsense. Thatcher won the following election in 1983 for quite different reasons. The economy was strongly recovering after the deep recession of 1980-1, and Thatcher herself had become a transformative heroic figure after the Falklands.

In other respects too we may see many of Tony Benn’s aspirations come to fruition after his death, while Thatcher’s ideas continue to fray in the light of events. Polling shows clearly huge majorities in support of taking back rail, energy and water into public ownership, imposing rent controls to stop ever-rising and unaffordable rents, building a crash programme of social housing for the near-2 million households on Council waiting lists, cracking down hard on industrial scale tax avoidance and evasion, and making the 1,000 most ultra-rich persons contribute a fair share of their £190bn ill-gotten gains in wealth since the 2008 crash (which many of them helped to cause).

We have also seen mass movements beginning to influence the politics of the country, which certainly reflects the Bennite inheritance. A range of different organisations such as the Occupy Movement against the Stock Exchange, UKUncut demonstrations against massive tax avoidance , and the People’s Assembly against austerity all represent collective action from below forcing issues up the political agenda and compelling those with wealth and power to make concessions and change direction. They are proving Benn right about how political change is driven.

Asked how he wanted to be remembered, Tony Benn said: “That I have given people hope”. There is already anger enough in Britain at how the country is being dragged into the deepest abyss for a century. What people want however is hope that a different and better world is possible. Tony Benn as a charismatic and inspiring leader, never a hater and destroyer like Thatcher, gave that hope to millions of people in Britain.

His unremitting campaigning for the rights of workers, for accountability, and for democracy and redress against wealth and power leave a demand for justice and a legacy of hope that will inspire generations to come.     

 

Michael Meacher is Labour MP for Oldham West and Royton

 

 


Len me your ears

Football-loving Len McCluskey wants Labour to get back on the pitch. But the General Secretary of Unite warns that if the party fails ...


Words: Paul Waugh

Photos: Paul Heartfield 

 

 

The Reds are back, and Len McCluskey is delighted. In fact, by May 2015 they could come out on top. “If Liverpool could sort their defence out, perhaps next season we could be genuine prospects…” he says, smiling.

The Liverpudlian General Secretary of Unite is, of course, talking about his beloved football club and their recent renaissance. But as the general election countdown continues apace, it’s his other team, Labour, that he wants to bounce back from years of underachievement to deliver a “level playing field” for his members.

Yet with the May elections and Scottish independence referendum looming, it’s clear that the man dubbed ‘Red Len’ by the media is worried that Ed Miliband’s party are not red enough, radical enough or in touch enough with the working class voters it needs for victory. And although Unite has just cut £1.5m from its affiliation fees to Labour, Britain’s biggest union remains a crucial donor and McCluskey has been given authority to pump in cash should it need it for the 2015 campaign.

In his office in Holborn, McCluskey’s other passion outside politics is rapidly obvious as a giant chess set sits proudly on his coffee table (“a Christmas present, a family gift, my children clubbed together”). With UKIP on the rise and the SNP a real force, he’s already assessing the political tactics and strategy needed for the next 14 months.

Today, his immediate focus is on the Budget. Apart from urging the Chancellor to ‘stop the cuts’, Unite would call for a new British Investment Bank, a big expansion of housebuilding, a new general anti-avoidance rule on tax and an increase of the minimum wage of £1.50 an hour, taking it close to the Living Wage. Just as importantly, he wants British workers’ rights to be restored to match those of the rest of Europe.

He wants to see the procurement rules changed in particular. “It’s so frustrating and annoying. Over £200bn a year our Government spends on services and what we would like to see is British companies given the inside track…Everything the German and French governments do gives their companies an inside track.”

In the UK, ambulances, police vehicles and even ministerial cars are all non-British makes. “All at the moment are foreign, it’s an outrage. You go to Germany of course and they will all be Mercedes.”

McCluskey says there is a wider problem with a lack of investment in British manfacturing. And the way unions are treated. “In Germany, 90% of German workers are covered by collective bargaining. In this country it used to be as high as 80%, it’s now down to 22%. What that means is workers are exposed to the abuses that come from bad employers.”

But what should a Government do to change that? “It can introduce statutory collective bargaining rights so it effectively enforces employers together. Good employers would welcome it, because they’re the ones that don’t particularly like getting caught up in a race to the bottom but very often find themselves sucked into that.”

He points to an example in the car industry. “In one day, I visited the Goodwood factory that makes the Rolls Royce car down on the south coast and then I drove up to Cowley [in Oxford] where they make the Mini. You couldn’t get two more iconic British cars, the Mini and the Rolls Royce – both owned of course by BMW.  I asked the managing directors in both of the companies, who were both German, ‘tell me the difference between Germany and the UK?’ And they both looked at me slightly hesitantly and said ‘well, we wouldn’t want to be offensive but you don’t seem to take manufacturing seriously in the UK’.

“I was on the shop floor and the managing director said to me ‘here’s an iconic British car made by British workers in a British plant and yet look here’. And he pointed to a huge big warehouse with 600 robots working away. He said ‘all of those robots are made in Germany. I can’t get them made here. If I could there would be 600 British robots.’

One reason for the Germans’ engineering success is their strong links between schools, colleges, universities and industry, he adds. McCluskey points to the example of his own son. “He was going into university and I asked him had he considered going into manufacturing. He looked at me as though I’d landed from planet Mars,” he says. “I asked him about engineering and design and he was more interested in finance and advertising and the sexy stuff.”

McCluskey says that in the recent high profile case of Grangemouth, the owner of refinery firm Ineos just wouldn’t have been allowed under the law to do in his German plants what he could in Scotland.

Mention of Grangemouth is a reminder of the controversy that surrounded Unite’s campaign of protests at the home of a senior manager. The General Secretary says the wider ‘leverage’ campaign is different from protests, and is more about targeting shareholders and others. But he’s unrepentant about street demonstrations.

“If you’re going to behave badly, then you’ve got to live with the consequence and those consequences are quite far reaching. It’s highly sophisticated. Demonstrating outside of directors’ homes is a different issue, it’s another arrow in our quiver, if you like. It’s as old as Adam. Protest is the basis of democracy. Nobody is intimidated, nobody is pressurised, children aren’t persuaded to join in, it is a silent protest and as such it is limited numbers and it is legal. Which is why we’ve never ever had the police taken any action.

“The media would like to portray this as a bunch of rent-a-thugs; it’s nothing like that. It’s based on this premise if directors make a decision to destroy jobs, to destroy communities and then disappear back into their leafy existence then they need to understand that we may well take the opportunity of making them accountable.”

He cites another example: “It was similar to when Magnet Kitchens sacked 350 workers in Darlington, a poor northern town, for taking legal action. We had a protest and the CEO who was responsible lived in the leafy village of St. Neot in Cambrideshire and we took a protest there where we bought some land opposite where he lived and set up a chicken farm and distributed leaflets around his village about what he was doing to people.

“Now, did I feel bad about that? Absolutely not. What I felt bad about was Darlington, a town that was struggling to keep its head above water and 360 decent people who had been unfairly sacked. So I don’t rule anything out in future, when we are fighting bad bosses.

“These are bad bosses. We very rarely use this tactic and we are involved in a number of disputes with employers, but those are normal run of the mill disputes that you can resolve quite quickly. But when we are dealing with employers who we regard as acting in an immoral fashion and with total disregard for consultation and disrespecting their workforce then we will reserve the right to use whatever tactics we can legally.”

Unlike some MPs, McCluskey has time to take a longer view of the political scene. Re-elected as the head of Unite last year, he’s guaranteed to remain in post until 2018.

With Ed Miliband’s union-link reforms having been approved by this month’s special conference, McCluskey’s affiliated members will drop to 500,000, but that’s still a lot of people. And Unite authorised him to make donations ‘beyond affiliations’ should Labour need them.

“It’s our party. This is my party. This is like my football club is Liverpool Football Club, it will never be any different. I want them to do well and I want my party to do well. And whilst we’ve cut our affiliation fee, which was a natural thing for us to do following Ed’s announcement, we also made it clear that we’ve got no intentions of bankrupting our party or allowing it to go into an election with one arm tied behind its back. So of course we’d be looking to make finances available wherever they are needed in the battle.”

Does he have a shopping list of policies he wants from a Labour government in return? “We are not going to buy our policies. We haven’t got a list of things with a price tag alongside it. It is our party and we play a role in that party like historically we always have done. What does that mean? It means me trying to influence things, along with other general secretaries.”

 

 

Labour will always be a ‘broad church’, McCluskey accepts, saying that “New Labour and so called Blairism definitely isn’t dead.” But he adds: “One of the characteristics central to Blairism was a kind of radical individualism at the expense of collectivism. It is the trade unions that run on collectivism. During the period of the New Labour years, that value has been lost or debilitated and I think that as a result our party has suffered and that’s why part of our problem at the moment is getting ordinary working people to come back to Labour, to see Labour as their natural voice.”

As for the 'special adviser' class of Labour candidates and MPs, McCluskey says: "I do say this. This is part of the problem about getting trade unionists and ordinary working people back involved in the party. The face of the Parliamentary Labour Party, everybody recognises that there has been a dramatic switch. That’s a challenge for Labour and for Ed Miliband. He has to demonstrate that the Labour party is still the party of organised labour. And still the party of ordinary working people.”

Through the candidates it has for Westminster seats? “Yes absolutely," he replies.

"I think Labour will win the next election, I’m hoping they form the next Government, whether it’s a majority or a minority Government. But the future of the Labour party is still very much up for scrutiny. One very wise old Labour MP said to me quite recently ‘the Labour Party has no God given right to exist, it can only exist if it is the voice of ordinary working people and trade unionists’. He was right.”

And as for Karie Murphy, the provisional candidate in Falkirk, how does he think she was treated? 

“I think the whole Falkirk situation was badly handled by Labour and the accusations that were levelled both at my union and individuals within Scotland was wrong. I hope everybody learns lessons from this. The truth is that there’s many individuals unfortunately who’ve been badly treated by the Labour party over the years, the thing is for people to learn lessons so that our party can move forward in a much more focused and progressive way in the future.”

Labour, like the Conservatives, are facing a big challenge in the May elections from UKIP, not least in urban metropolitan council seats. McCluskey says the party has to show that it is listening to worries about immigration and the EU.

“It’s a protest vote, but an awful lot of working people believe that all the politicians are the same, there’s not a lot of difference between the Tories, Labour and the Lib Dems that nobody’s really dealing with their concerns over immigration and Europe.

“And therefore along come UKIP, fill the void. Be under no illusions, there are significant numbers of ordinary Labour voters, Labour constituents, who are attracted to UKIP and Labour therefore need to challenge the void that exists, to recognise the concerns that people have about immigration and to try and deal with it.”

He says that if Labour can build more homes it can tackle the claim that migrants often jump the waiting list. “The other issue is about ‘these people come over and take our jobs and undercut our wages’ and there is an element of truth in that. It’s not immigrants to blame for that, it’s unscrupulous bosses who are playing the system. That goes back to the point about collective bargaining and rates of pay being established in statutory law to protect the workers.”

Is he thinking of the construction industry in particular? “Very much so. In that case there would be no need for employers to go and bring Romanian or Polish workers or Estonian workers or what have you in to undercut wage rates here. If they weren’t allowed to do it, then the likelihood is they’d say ‘well, why don’t we just employ British workers, local workers?’” 

McCluskey says that Gordon Brown was unfairly criticised for using the phrase ‘British jobs for British workers’ (“he could have used the term ‘local workers’ that would have more accurately reflected it”) but the former PM struck a jarring note when he called pensioner Gillian Duffy a “bigoted woman”. “I think immigration is a problem. There was this perfectly nice woman asking a question that significant numbers of white working class people were asking and Gordon reacted wrongly to it. And that’s a danger because what the Labour Party needs to do is recognise those concerns but deal with them.”

Given the rise of UKIP, and given his clear worry that the EU is turning from a ‘workers’ Europe’ into a ‘bosses’ Europe’, does he back the idea of an In-Out referendum? Some in Labour say that backing a referendum would help them outflank the Tories.

“I think it is an interesting view. I’ve heard that expressed by a number of Labour MPs, that we should just call for a referendum,” he says. He hesitates and laughs, clearly uncomfortable and just stopping himself from saying that he agrees. “My…my union is a pro-Europe union…and therefore we believe that we should stay in Europe.”

But wouldn’t a referendum give the people a say? Even pro-Europeans think a direct vote could settle the issue for a generation. “I understand that and I think it’s got some validity,” he replies. “I think the likelihood in a referendum is that there would probably be a very heavy Yes vote to stay in Europe. I don’t think there’s enough discussion about Europe. If you ask a lot of my members, they don’t know enough and of course one thing a referendum would do is at least generate a debate. I’m not saying we’re in favour of a referendum but I am saying that we really need to discuss Europe much more deeply within our own membership, so that we can understand both the advantages and some of the disadvantages, so that we can understand the threat that currently exists.”

Some in the union movement, and in the Labour Party, worry that the planned free trade deal between the EU and the US, the so-called Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), could usher in new rules barring public services from returning to the state once outsourced.

“When Europe was first embraced, it had a huge social charter, social element in it,” he says. “That’s being eroded at the moment. David Cameron and the Conservatives are saying ‘yes we want to stay in Europe but we want to change it’ but what they want to change is they want to worsen workers’ conditions and workers’ rights. That’s already happening, it’s seeping into Europe and I’m concerned about that.”

“We need to get to a situation whereby British workers should have the same protections and rights as our colleagues in the rest of Europe. The crux to this is we are the worst protected workforce in the whole of western Europe and that’s an outrage. It was our nation who defeated fascism and gave Europe all of the freedoms that they currently have.  I suspect you asked the British public ‘do you think it’s fair that German, Italian, Belgian and Dutch workers have better protections?’, a huge 90 odd per cent would say it’s not.”

“The German government embrace trade unions. They seem trade unions as part of their co-determination, they respect trade unions. All you get from this Government is attacks on trade unions, to portrao trade unionist as the enemy within. Trade unions are the largest voluntary organisation in our society. We are talking about, if you include people’s families, about 10 million people or more who are part of the trade union family and are being demonised."

What does he want a Labour government to do specifically on this?

“Make a declaration ‘why should British workers be worse off and have worse treatment?’ That simple declaration makes it easier then for us to talk about the complexity of employment law and the intricacies of the legal system, I could produce a book this thick about what should or shouldn’t happen, but in a more pragmatic fashion we would look for a future Government to recognise this question of fairness. So we can get back on a level playing field.”

The Scots independence referendum is also prompting a lively internal debate for Unite members too. Again, McCluskey tries to tread the fine line between acknowledging his union’s neutrality and expressing his own private view. “It’s obviously a crucial debate, my union takes a position of neutrality, probably for good reasons. Our private polling tells us that about 40% of our own Unite members voted SNP, a huge shift from what would traditionally be Labour supporters. So one of the most practical reasons why we currently take a neutral position is it would split our union down the middle if we came out for or against.”

But would he personally be sad to see Scotland leave the UK or would it be a good idea? “I actually…don’t have a personal view on these things,” he smiles. “I have a view as the General Secretary of Unite. What we are trying to do and most of the unions are is to say the debate should be about what type of Scotland ordinary working people want and in that context, it is that type of debate we want to stimulate.

“I think it’s a great thing, I think it’s really good that it’s happening. I think the SNP are perceived in some areas to be more radical than Labour and so that is a challenge to Scottish Labour. Scottish Labour have lost some of their radical edge and they’ve got to regain it otherwise Alex Salmond will gallop up our left wing. I think that might be a good thing for politics in general up in Scotland if Labour begin to remember their history and radicalise themselves more.”

Warming to his theme, he also says that opinion polls south of the border could be a key factor in the outcome. “Remember we are talking about a nation which has kicked the Tories out. They have one Westminster MP [in Scotland]. That’s critical. If I was living up in Scotland at the moment, and I know that this is happening, having chased the Tories out of my country they’re looking at what’s going to happen in Westminster. If, come September, there was a likelihood of a Conservative Government being reelected in Westminster, I think that might have an impact on the thinking of Scottish people, who might say ‘another five years of that? We may as well go it alone’.

“I feel that’s why it’s also a challenge to Ed Miliband to demonstrate to Scottish people and to the rest of us that he’s driving forward on an alternative programme to austerity and poverty and if he does that I think the opinion polls will show he will be the next Prime Minister. And therefore that will have an impact on Scottish independence.”

Yet another referendum is causing an altogether different controversy in Ukraine, as the Russian-dominated leaders of Crimea plot their own poll on breaking away. Unite has in the past allied with the Stop the War Coalition, does its General Secretary agree with the group’s stance on Russia’s ‘legitimate’ interests in Ukraine?

McCluskey points out that the crisis is “highly complex” but his priority would be diplomacy. “The last thing we want to see is any violence and therefore we would constantly urge both Russia and the Ukraine and the Western forces to talk, to engage in a debate and a discussion otherwise we might find ourselves in a really difficult situation with ethnic cleansing and violence. So we are in favour of talk,” he says.

“Of course like all of these things, it has a history. And the history of Ukraine is complicated. This goes back to way beyond the Soviet Union, it goes back to Tsarist Russia where the Crimea was annexed to become part of the Tsarist empire because of its strategic nature so it has lots and lots of complicated history, including a Second World War where 20 million Russians were annihilated and obviously reactionary forces inside Ukraine at the moment, neo-Nazi forces are gaining prominence and it therefore beholds the West, who of course have had an involvement, to take a very calm approach to it. Whether Russia has the ability and the legal right to occupy part of another nation is of course questionable. But when you look at that nation, you’ve effectively got this huge Russian ethnic group who speak Russian, you’ve got another section of the population who speak Ukrainian. Right away you’ve got this conflict and these difficulties. As it happens, when it was the Soviet Union, Russians and Ukrainians mixed happily together and so it is regrettable what’s happened at the moment. It’s something that we all, in particular Russia, have got to be calm about. But the West can’t respond to these demands that this poor country has suddenly been invaded. We need to take a much more focused view because you remember the President of the Ukraine was democratically elected and he was turfed out of office, and therefore there are complications that need diplomacy as a way to try and resolve this.”

Back home, it’s the other Reds he’s focused on. In an echo of his economic case, McCluskey can point to his Liverpool team investing for the long term, including in a controversial striker. “We are playing some lovely football. Brendan Rogers has got an ethos about him that marks him out potentially as being a great, great manager. And of course we have Luis Suarez,” he says. “I don’t think we will win the League [this year]. I’ll be happy if we just secured Champions League, but next season…”

Will 2015 be the breakthrough year? With another mischievous smile, he replies: “Red Len, through and through.” 

 

LEN ON…BRITISH SHORT-TERMISM

“German banks, when they invest in companies, look for a return in 30 years’ time. British banks have looked for a return in 30 minutes.”

LEN ON…GERMAN INDUSTRIAL RELATIONS

“The German government embrace trade unions, they respect trade unions. All you get from this Government is attacks as the enemy within.”

LEN ON…‘MANUFACTURING CHAMPIONS’

“Companies who tick certain boxes on good industrial relations and investment should be given assistance and support and tax breaks”

LEN ON…ED MILIBAND

“He has to demonstrate that the Labour Party is still the party of organised labour.”

LEN ON...BRITISH FIRMS SOLD OVERSEAS

"During the Thacher years it was like a car boot sale"

LEN ON…DIRECT ACTION PROTESTS

 “When we are dealing with employers who we regard as acting in an immoral fashion …then we will reserve the right to use whatever tactics we can legally.”

 

 

 

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