Thursday, 26 November 2015

Still some hope for the Swansea Bay project

Commentators have drawn pessimistic conclusions from energy minister Amber Rudd's recent pronouncements. She has proclaimed herself to be a disciple of climate change denying Nigel Lawson and has encouraged the growth of gas-powered electricity generation. The government has dropped all mention of the Swansea tidal lagoon project from its speeches and media releases.

However, Mark Leftly in the Independent holds out hope. He gives many reasons why the project should go ahead and concludes:

the probable lack of fanfare around Swansea Bay lagoon doesn’t mean the Chancellor is telling us the project is dead. Rather, the Autumn Statement has come too soon for the Government to show off a technology that could transform energy policy and become one of our most significant modern exports.

Perhaps he anticipates a big announcement at the start of the Welsh Conservatives' election campaign? I am not so hopeful. Leftly tiptoes all round the major point of contention: the strike price which TLP is asking for. The company's opening bid was for more than the Conservatives are guaranteeing the French and Chinese for the new wave of nuclear power stations. This government has closed its ears to environmental scientific advice, so I am not optimistic.

Bastiat Prize

Congratulations to Amit Varma on winning the Bastiat Prize for journalism for the second time, so far the only person to do so.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Coalition betrayed again

The rail electrification through Port Talbot and Neath to Swansea, stalled by Labour when in government, and given the green light by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, is one of the sacrifices made by George Osborne in his quest to meet his deficit reduction target.
Tomorrow happens to be the first meeting of the newly restructured Railfuture Cymru, after which I hope to have more detail.

Data loss from Goddard Inquiry - PM unconcerned

It was not only Spending Review day in the Commons - during which George Osborne fell back on the Gordon Brown technique of headlining unrealistic targets - but also the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. Support for abused women needs not only money for those selected charities in the field (a faint cheer to the Chancellor for this) but also a systemic supportive approach by the police. That is not going to be helped by restrictions on police budgets; there is even a risk of losing what gains we have made in enlightened forces in England and Wales.

But what struck me most forcibly was a question to the Prime Minister by a Labour member about the loss of contributions to the Goddard Inquiry via a web site, a news item which had passed me by at the time. David Cameron seemed unconcerned about the reasons for the loss of these data. It is surely necessary to put at rest suspicions of those seeking redress from Goddard that there is not some back-office saboteur attached to it.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Darling anniversary

Heroine Grace Darling was born 200 years ago today. Without detracting from their bravery, it seems that her father was partly motivated by hopes of salvage from the Forfarshire in mounting the rescue.

Monday, 23 November 2015

Give up F1, not red button

It seems that BBC wants to save money by giving up choice at Wimbledon and other events with broad appeal but seeks to hang on to rights to the ecologically-dubious, laddish, Formula 1. There is no mention of trimming executives, I notice.

Friday, 20 November 2015

Trade Unions and Liberal Democracy

There are still classical liberals in the party who throw up their hands in horror at the merest whiff of "syndicalism", but as yesterday's debate in the House of Lords showed there is a more realistic attitude in today's Liberal Democrats.

Lorely Burt spoke largely from experience in business and personnel management. In her maiden speech to the upper House she said:
Before I discovered politics, my career was in public service—the Prison Service, in fact—in commercial business and then as an entrepreneur with my own businesses. I have spoken up for business large and small throughout my parliamentary career, so this short debate today seemed ideal for my maiden speech. My party, the Liberal Democrats, is a pro-business party. We feel a special affinity to small businesses; that independence of thinking, preparedness to back up your beliefs with actions and working hard are all traits we share with the entrepreneur. Indeed, many party members are entrepreneurs, but many also are trade union members, a lot of them in the public sector, selflessly serving in health, education and other services.

We all recognise that businesses and public services are nothing without the people who staff them, put their energy, time and creativity into making businesses grow, deliver the best service they possibly can, take pride in seeing the success they have helped to create and rightly expect to share in that success. Business is a partnership between those tasked with managing the business and those who put energy and effort into making that business or that service the best it can possibly be. Here I cannot help being a little bit controversial. I think that anyone who seeks to profit at the expense of one side or the other will only defeat themselves. Taking sides is counterproductive—and I am sad to say that we see this all too clearly in politics at the moment. 

The Trade Union Bill, to which several noble Lords have already alluded, in my view seeks to diminish union power when there is no evidence that strikes are on the increase and the number of trade union members is at its lowest for 20 years. Having said that, however, trade unions have a big responsibility, too. They serve their members poorly if they seek to push management too far, protect unproductive working practices and hamper the ability of employers to create wealth for all. That is why Liberal Democrats favour employee ownership so strongly. It is sad that many unions do little to support mutual and shared ownership when their own roots come from the co-operative movement. So, we welcome the constructive role that trade unions can play in the partnership that enables everyone to benefit from their labours.

 In case anyone is thinking that I am unrealistic in my description of the working partnership I have outlined, I point noble Lords to an example of what happened in Solihull when Jaguar Land Rover fell on difficult times and we feared that either the Solihull or the Castle Bromwich plant would have to close, spelling disaster for our area and affecting the wider West Midlands. Management and unions worked together to agree a plan to reduce workers’ hours and pay, thereby enabling more skilled staff to remain in work so that the skills would not be lost when the hoped for upturn arrived—and, boy, did it arrive. Since that terrible time, JLR has become one of the most successful manufacturing companies in the UK, investing and building a long-term future to guarantee the success and prosperity of all the partners involved. That is the way to do it. Successful, long-term businesses are built on firm and committed partnerships between owners and staff.

Lord Stoneham spoke from both sides of the labour/management divide:

As a social democrat, I spent a career grappling with change in industry. I also frequently worked for a trade union [NUR] so I, and these Benches, remain committed to sustaining, improving and supporting the work of trade unions in this country.
Given that we will be debating the Trade Union Bill, I do not think that this is the moment to go into detail on it, but I will say that these Benches are opposed to the Bill, as we opposed its measures when they were proposed in the coalition. Fundamentally we are opposed to it because we see it as a partisan Bill, both industrially and politically, and because it seeks to further weaken the influence of trade unions when, frankly, they are no longer in a strong position. We think that it is irrelevant to the main economic issues of raising productivity and enhancing the country’s competitive advantage.
On freedom of speech, we say that we may not like what people say but we will defend their right to say it, and so it is with trade unions. Despite the frustrations and the disagreements with them that we sometimes have, we will fight to maintain freedom of association to ensure that the rights and interests of employees are properly represented. Indeed, I believe that society will benefit if we do so. In this debate we have heard a number of arguments for and examples of the benefits of trade unions to democracy. I will not go through them all again but I should like to draw out a few, some of which have already been mentioned.

Historically, trade unions have improved the terms and conditions of their members. I say to the House that one of the problems that we now have is that our trade unions are in a weakened position. We are now in a position where the Government have to intervene to try to arrange the living wage so that the state does not subsidise the wages paid by employers. That we are in that position is not a sign of strong trade unionism; it is a sign of weak trade unionism.

I also want to emphasise the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Monks, about boardroom pay and differentials in industry. I worked in a company which was very conscious of what it paid the board and the managers. In fact, I negotiated with the noble Baroness, Lady Dean [Brenda Dean, formerly general secretary of the print union SOGAT]. Frankly, I could not have faced trade union representatives if I had had a huge bonus or a huge salary increase at a time when we were announcing redundancies. That was how we behaved. It was a counterbalance which, to be frank, is lacking in much of industry and employment today, and I think that we miss it.

Historically, trade unions have made a big impact on health and safety. In debates on health and safety, too often we have concerns about regulation. People say that regulation of health and safety is completely impossible. I say that if we had more representatives on the ground, there would be less need for regulation; it would be automatic in industry, and that is a role that trade unions have played in that field.

[...] It might also be appropriate for somebody outside the Labour Party to comment on the huge role that trade unions have played in various aspects of life—certainly in my generation. First, they saved the Labour Party in the 1980s. I am pleased to see the noble Lord, Lord Kinnock, in his place, because he was assisted by that. But for them, the Labour Party would not have been transformed. Secondly—here, I give due credit to the noble Lord, Lord Monks—trade unions changed the view on Europe inside the Labour Party in the 1980s. But for the commitment to the Social Charter, countering the idea that the EU was a capitalist club, we would not be in the position we are in today with the Labour Party supporting Europe and the Conservative ranks now split. Maybe the Government can learn from that experience—indeed, I think they are doing.

Finally, unions act as a check on management in industry. I worked in the print industry and at times I would complain. We were sometimes too slow to make changes. However, we as management had to work harder, do better and be more progressive to get those changes. Eventually, we did—and we did so in my company by agreement. Similarly, things are now happening in the motor industry. Fifteen years ago, I visited Nissan when it was in its early days, and now it is the most productive plant in Europe. We heard the story of Jaguar Land Rover. None of that would have been possible without the contribution or leadership of the trade unions in those areas. We need to build better, more confident management in dealing with trade unions.

I do not accept that there is not room for the trade unions to modernise and to reach out more. I did not find the turnout of 4.4% in the GMB’s leadership election very encouraging, but falling membership will not make unions more representative. Indeed, as the membership falls and unions turn into silos, we will find—unless we try to reverse it—that the unions will be less representative.

Unions have to examine their role but so, too, does management. We have given too much attention to short-term decision-making and there has been an overemphasis on shareholder value. This is a time for the employee stakeholder to have a much more determining role. Trade unions are an essential part of a progressive social democracy and, for the foreseeable future, they will be central to progressive politics in this country.

Lord Monks' contribution at 19 Nov 2015 : Column 281  is worth reading, too.