Morning Briefing – The Telegraph

Good morning.

Britain’s trade unions are thinking of you this Christmas. Specifically, they think that if they can make your life difficult enough you will be angry at the government and not just them. Drivers and conductors on the Southern Rail network are staging full-day strikes today and tomorrow, with another on Friday, affecting something like 500,000 passengers. Then, next week, around 3,500 Post Office staff will walk out for the week in an attempt to stop planned branch closures. It is said that the elves at the North Pole are also balloting , while Rudolf is taking the other reindeers’ name-calling to an employment tribunal. 

The Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling, is incensed. In a letter to MPs seen by the telegraph, he claims that Aslef, the train drivers’ union, rejected two offers to hold talks with the rail company, and that it is “hell-bent on fomenting this dispute”. Of course he would say that, but he also made a more interesting claim: that Southern’s persistent delays and breakdowns are partly the result of a long, unofficial campaign of working to rule in which unionised workers repeatedly call in sick or falsely report trains to be broken. “Intervene,” says the Telegraph.

The suspicion for many will be that these strikes are not directly about pay or conditions but about trade unions who see themselves as the only remaining guardians of public  services. Our writer Leo McKinstry thinks so, saying they “see themselves as part of a radical vanguard against the Tories”. Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS, which represents Royal Mail staff, hinted as much on the Today Programme this morning when he told John Humphry’s strike was necessary to defend public services. “We’re in a situation where unless we fight now, unless we actually take action now, the future of the post office network, high street post offices in particular, will no longer exist,” he said. Of course, insofar as closures would mean fewer staff these unions are also protecting their members.

But all this cuts to the heart of an ongoing conflict within trade unionism between militancy and pragmatism, epitomised by the forthcoming Unite election. Unite’s current general secretary, Len McCluskey, was forced to call an vote early after failing to convince his executive committee to lift an age ban which would have stopped him from running again at the end of his term in 2018 (and thus from being in post during the next General Election). Although most people think of him as a hard leftist, but in the mirror-world of union politics he is under sustained threat from his own left flank. His vocal support of Jeremy Corbyn – what former Morning Briefer Stephen Bush has called “the most important relationship in Labour politics” –  has as much to do with neutralising this threat as it does with ideology.

But as a consequence he now faces a different challenge in the shape of Gerard Coyne, reportedly the favoured candidate of anti-Corbynites in the defence and auto industries who fear the long-term consequences of Unite’s alliance with the hard Left. Labour centrists believe that electing Mr Coyne could be the key to isolating and eventually removing Mr Corbyn. Remember that in the 1980s it was the trade unions’ moderating influence which fought with Militant to keep Labour in the centre. Of particular importance was the AEEU, which boasts among its former members one Tom Watson MP.

The unions are fighting for their future in a world of increasing fragmentation, automation, and casualisation. Their membership has declined from 13 million in 1979 to just 6.5 million today. The rise of the “gig economy” may soon subvert their role entirely (though it could theoretically enhance it by increasing public support, and the necessity, for collective bargaining). And the current government may still attempt to cut them off from their Parliamentary support. Gambling on Jeremy Corbyn seems more likely to hasten this process than to arrest it.


Ed aims to educate the nation

MORNING BRIEFING – By Benedict Brogan (Daily Telegraph).

Ed Miliband’s decision to talk about his schooling at conference has been put in context by this morning’s front-pages. Red Ed will give his big speech today, and education will be the theme.

The Guardian leads with the line that Ed will concentrate on the “forgotten 50%” and pledge to “end elitism”, as the paper puts it. He will tell the conference:

“We cannot succeed if we have an education system that only works for half the country. It’s time now to focus on those who don’t go to university.”

Other strands of thought are in evidence elsewhere in the morning papers. As we report, the proposals will include the idea that children ought to learn maths and English until they reach 18. The Times (£), meanwhile, reports that the Labour leader will pump £1bn into apprenticeship schemes.

Mr Miliband is in need of a strong performance. His personal poll ratings have always underperformed those of the party, a point which the Independent makes with its splash on the results of its ComRes poll. Only 22pc of the electorate believe Ed has what it takes to make an effective Prime Minister. Dave polls 39pc, four points higher than his party when voters are asked for party preference. The Labour team of the two Eds also trail Dave and George on economic trust.

If personality politics is Labour’s real weakness at present, then as I write in my column this morning, the Labour leadership are becoming increasingly sharp in attempting to close the gap between Mr Miliband and Mr Cameron:

“This why the battle of ideas forms such a big part of Mr Miliband’s strategy. He is happy to out-wonk Mr Cameron, in order to show him up as a toff with nothing to say. He is proud, he admits, to be a pointy-head. In fact, it is a form of intellectual snobbery, an invitation to the public to join him in deriding the apparent shallowness of the Prime Minister’s leadership style, with its emphasis on box sets and banging tunes… Coupled with a video about his time in a north London comprehensive, he will stress yet again his background as the son of immigrants whose ‘family hasn’t sat under the same oak tree for 500 years’.”

If becoming more likeable is part of the task, it is not the whole of it. As Janan Ganesh in the FT (£) and Rachel Sylvester in the Times (£) write, there is still a lack of understanding at the conference as to why voters rejected the Labour Party last time around. Relying solely on voters disliking the Conservatives isn’t enough.

Still, at least Mr Miliband has one less thing to worry about today. According to the Independent, his brother David went home last night to avoid embarrassing the leader by looking distracted during his conference speech.


Given the trashing of poor Danny Alexander at the Lib Dem conference after his attempts at comedy fell flat, Ed Balls was brave to take the comic option yesterday. The headline announcements had already been extensively trailed in the morning press – not least the plan to provide 100,000 new affordable homes through proceeds from the sale of the 4G phone spectrum. What was left was the gags, and Mr Balls had plenty of those. As we report, Mr Balls gave Dave and George a wild west twist:

“Butch? Butch? Whatever did he mean? And if David Cameron is butch, where does that leave George Osborne?

“Perhaps this is why George Osborne will never be sacked. A Prime Minister and a Chancellor destined to go down fighting together. And this time, let’s see them riding off into the sun-set. Butch Cameron and the flat-line kid.”

Sketch writers loved it, even if the editorials proved a little more sober- “a stand-up comedian with a straight face,” was the verdict of the Telegraph’s leader writer. Ann Treneman in the Times (£) wrote that the conference got “New Balls!”, and the Guardian’s Simon Hoggart praised Mr Balls’ ability to tell the conference what it didn’t want to hear and still get a standing ovation on the back of his Osborne gags. In the Mail, Quentin Letts seized upon the similarities between Mr Balls and his mentor, writing:

“The Balls speech was Brownian in its political brutality. There was the denial of responsibility, the affronted hyperbole, the over-rehearsed insults. He made a long joke about Mr Cameron’s machismo which you will have understood only if you watch PMQs every week.

“[However] Mr Balls has improved as an orator. He has learned to insert variation in pace and volume. He kept the leery look off his lips and even managed not to bulge his gobstopper eyes quite so much.”

No matter the effect on the rest of the faithful, the unions did not raise a chuckle. As the Guardian reported, Unite’s Len McCluskey, who has already made a thorough nuisance of himself to the Labour hierarchy this week, popped up to tell the Shadow Chancellor that:

“A public squeeze while the City continues to let rip is simply not acceptable. Asking the poorest for further sacrifices for a crisis they did not cause is the road to political ruin and defeat at the next election.”

But as any good comedian and entertainer knows, you can’t please all of the people, all of the time.


At a time when public faith in politicians is at its lowest ebb, all parties are searching for unifying figures as election candidates with unblemished records of honesty and public service. Luckily for the Labour Party, Alastair Campbell is mulling a comeback. Mr Campbell revealed that he was “thinking about” standing for election during an interview with LBC yesterday. The Guardian reports that he added:

“All I’ll say to you is I get a lot of people asking me, particularly when I’m up here, and I do think about it and I am thinking about it and I don’t think there’s a fantastic rush. We sort of know when the next election is.”


In the meantime, another senior Labour figure from the days of Mr Tony is sinking deeper into the mire. Our revelations about Keith Vaz and the “suspicious nature” of his banking arrangements has been followed up in today’s Telegraph with the news that Mr Vaz was able to pay a mortgage bill which was seven times as large as his salary. In October 2008, Mr Vaz was meeting mortgage commitments of £26,500 a month on a backbench MP’s salary of £45,066.


It’s the Big Society, but not as we know it. In fact it’s the…Labour Big Society. Jon Cruddas told the conference yesterday that Labour had “missed a trick” by not adopting the concept earlier. As the Independent reports, Mr Cruddas now plans to put the idea at the heart of the party’s policy review over the next year.

Fortunately, the policy has two influential cheerleaders at the top of the party. Ed Balls has previously described the Big Society as a “big con”, while to his leader it was simply a “failure”.


Taking a brief break from his war on Whitehall waste, Francis Maude gives a speech to the Institute of Government this evening in which he will claim that senior Whitehall mandarins deliberately obstruct government policy. The Telegraph reports that Mr Maude will say:

“Ministers from this Government, and in previous ones, have too often found that decisions they have made do not then get implemented… There are cases when permanent secretaries have blocked agreed Government policy from going ahead or advised other officials not to implement ministerial decisions – that is unacceptable.”


And finally… The Telegraph’s Mandrake column reports that it looks like there will be no more afternoons at the opera for George Osborne, Michael Gove and Ed Vaizey. Following the furore over their attendance at the Royal Opera House for the second part of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, the trio turned down tickets to the following performance. Never mind. Although afternoon opera is now off the list of approved chillaxing activities, there’s always Fruit Ninja.


Paul Flynn is one delegate energised by Jon Cruddas’ Labour Big Society:

@Paulflynnmp: “Weird. Jon Cruddas imitates ‘Thick of it” by adopting Tory Big Society just as Tories are burying idea 6 feet deep with concrete slab on top ”


ComRes/Independent – Con 35%, Lab 38%, Lib 15%, Other 12%


In The Telegraph

Benedict Brogan – Behind the mask of modesty, Labour is developing an arrogant streak

Jeremy Warner – Why Germany must face up to its €1 trillion headache

Michael Burleigh – Eric Hobsbawm: A believer in the Red utopia to the very end

Peter Stanford – Was Jimmy Savile too big a star to challenge?

Best of the rest

Rachel Sylvester in the Times (£) – First Labour must shake off its defeat-deniers

Steve Richards in the Independent – Balls can’t risk the too-much information trap

Janan Ganesh in the FT (£) – Miliband must shock Labour out of its complacency

Gideon Rachman in the FT (£) – Blame the great men for Europe’s crisis


Today: Labour Party conference, Manchester.

09:30 am: Labour conference panel discussion on the living wage.

10:00 am: Harriet Harman speaks at the Labour conference.

11:00 am: Tessa Jowell speaks at the Labour conference.

02:15 pm: Ed Miliband speaks at the Labour conference.

04:30 pm: Francis Maude speaks to Institute for Government on public sector reform. Institute for Government, 2 Carlton Gardens.

In Frances O’Grady, the TUC brothers have a sister to reckon with

When Frances O’Grady was unveiled as the TUC’s new general secretary yesterday, much of the coverage focused on how the union movement now has its first woman leader. Sadly, that’s wrong. O’Grady hasn’t actually been appointed leader of anything. What she has essentially done is to enter a run-off contest to determine the shape of modern British trade unionism, modern British industrial policy – and, very probably, the next British government.

Her challenger is Len McCluskey, the leader of the “super-union” Unite. His vision of modern trade unionism is crystal clear. He wants to use it as a giant club to hammer David Cameron and Nick Clegg into the ground. Then he intends to do the same with the bankers, the butchers, the bakers, the candlestick makers – just about anyone who doesn’t work in the public sector – until they agree to play nice. After which he might, just might, let Ed Miliband run the country for a while – as long as he does what he’s told.


London 2012 Olympics: Games strike action threat branded ‘unpatriotic’ by Downing Street

McCluskey suggested in a newspaper interview that unions could stage industrial action during the Games as part of their campaign against Government cuts.

The leader of the country’s largest trade union said workers should consider using strike action over the period so as to achieve maximum disruption.

“The attacks that are being launched on public sector workers at the moment are so deep and ideological that the idea the world should arrive in London and have these wonderful Olympic Games as though everything is nice and rosy in the garden is unthinkable,” he told The Guardian.

“The unions, and the general community, have got every right to be out protesting. If the Olympics provide us with an opportunity, then that’s exactly one that we should be looking at.”

While McClusky stated that a definitive plan for industrial action over the Games has yet to be established he warned that the protests could “absolutely” include strikes.

Read more…