Lessons from Leeds…..
Nick Clegg has said many times that the Liberal Democrats are taking over the mantle of the ‘party of progress’ from the Labour Party. This has always seemed like one of those political promises that it would always be hard for us to fulfil; sometimes due to specific policy commitments/positions but more often than that due to a cultural inability for this party to appeal to Labour’s core vote. Doing this doesn’t require draping yourself in the Red Flag but it does require an ability to actually talk to working class voters. It is painful to watch the likes of David Cameron try this and often baffling to watch us attempt it; recent events in Leeds have been a model of how we can’t conduct ourselves if we are serious about fulfilling the promise of Clegg’s fine words.
Leeds City Council is run by a coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats and for ten weeks now it has been in dispute with refuse collection and street cleansing staff represented by both Unison and the GMB. Leaving aside the specifics of the dispute for the moment (specifics where the council’s case is very weak) a look at the response in the pages of the local paper, the Yorkshire Evening Post, shows why I was recently told that the newly politicised striking workers are ‘flocking’ to the Labour Party. Known Liberal Democrat supporters branded the striking workers as ‘pathetic’ and a Liberal Democrat council candidate implied that bin men were somehow ‘duped’ into striking and said that;
“Leeds has one of the least efficient refuse collection services in the country, with exceptionally high sickness rates, and all attempts to negotiate changes to make the service more efficient have been rebuffed by the trades unions.”
This is a prize example of how oppositional rhetoric has led to overblown claims which has actually not sought to solve issues but attack the character of the striking bin men themselves. The number of bins collected per-hour in Leeds stands at 196; a figure which currently compares favourably with other major cities; Liverpool, for example, can only boast a collection rate of 175 per hour. Sickness rates, another bone of contention, and there height seems very much to me (and indeed the unions) to be the responsibility of management and points regarding this and what seems to be a systematic failure of management has been totally ignored. Hands-up who is in a job where the unions and the workforce are held collectively responsible for sickness rates and who thinks management in such a climate is succeeding when it rarely conducts return to work interviews?
Underpinning this is the paranoid belief that the strike is actually a coup attempt by the Labour opposition. Influential and closely tied the Labour Party and both unions maybe but I sincerely doubt they could mobilise the numbers required to ensure the 92% who voted to reject the councils last offer. So, it is with this bunker mentality and tin-hats well and truly pressed-on that we have found ourselves in Leeds sounding increasingly like class war Thatcherites. So strident has been the tone of some contributions that I know for a fact that the need to ‘simmer down’ has been raised internally within the council group. This is not to say that the other side has been blameless in this regard with highly personalised (and deeply wrong) attacks being mounted on Councillor Richard Brett.
In a similar vein to Royal Mail’s management the council has hired temporary staff to undermine the strike. However, the service these staff have thus far provided has been far short of the ‘normal service’ that the council promised and The Independent recently carried a piece alleging student areas have been virtually ignored since students don’t pay council tax. Such areas are habitually strewn with rubbish but infrequently have any actual bins to collect to contribute towards the council’s proposed hourly target. Again, this is an issue that has been ignored in the stampede to slander the strikers; dismiss them as ‘militants’ and stigmatise their actions as being a ‘coup’ attempt.
So out of touch is this mentality with reality that it fails to explain why these strikes are now spreading to Brighton and Sheffield. Belts have to be tightened people will say; indeed, the council has claimed that council tax would have to be raised 18% to maintain the bin men’s level of pay and equalise it not fairly but by a drastic reduction. However, such figures are exposed as pure nonsense by the fact that the council’s final offer which;
“The council said that the offer meant an annual pay cut of £231 for refuse collectors, instead of the original maximum loss of £4,491, which led to the walkout. But council drivers who empty street litter bins would still lose up to £994 and street sweepers £543, instead of £3,535 and £2,634.”
So, the question that should be asked is how this offer can be managed with no tub-thumping 18% rise but to nullify the losses totally would incur an 18% tax hike. Here, as in other places, the council’s maths simply doesn’t add-up. Indeed, citing the initial offer of a bonus scheme linked to productivity, theYorkshire Evening Post reported;
“Coun Brett said extra money – related to efficiencies – was there”
So, in other words, the claim council tax would have to rise by 18% only materialised later in the dispute and is a complete fabrication. In my conversations with people involved in the strike I have found them realistic about not expecting a huge pay rise; they merely want to preserve their existing pay and conditions which given life-changing losses that the council is trying to force upon them is understandable.
In other words what we have is a story of a Liberal Democrat council deliberately provoking a class war; choosing in both its language and conduct to make this an act of war against a section of the workforce. How this is supposed to convince working class Labour voters that we are a ‘progressive’ party that will represent their interests is beyond me; in short, Leeds shows that until the culture of this party changes Nick Clegg’s words will remain empty rhetoric and unfulfilled promise.