Gordon Brown’s chief fixer is ensconced in Unite, the increasingly militant union. Iain Martin asks if the comrades can be persuaded to hold back a wave of strikes
Where is Charlie Whelan these days? What’s the old rascal up to? The trade union fixer, spin-doctoring confidant and close friend of the Prime Minister was on my mind after I returned from a trip to my native Scotland for Christmas. I had booked a rail ticket to take me northwards in time for the big day — £112 first class with Virgin. My only choice, seeing as the Unite trade union had engineered a British Airways strike, rendering my £190 British Airways ticket bought months ago useless. That the industrial action was then cancelled, and that I had two tickets, was no consolation. Thousands will, like me, be out of pocket — and wondering what sort of people could even consider a strike at such a time of year.
But what was most interesting about the proposed strike was the silence of the government. Gordon Brown has passed comment on the death of Michael Jackson, The X Factor and the victories of the English cricket team. Yet he had nothing to say about the trade union which was out to cause havoc for the travelling public. It was then I remembered Charlie Whelan. He is now the political director at Unite, regarded by his (many) Labour enemies as one of the most powerful people in the very union outfit that tried to ruin Christmas for BA customers.
To say that Gordon Brown and Charlie are politically close is an understatement. They are Labour blood brothers, never happier than when they are cooking up an assault on their opponents — either external or internal. From their perspective such a get-together could only be bettered if Ed Balls was available to join in the plotting. Whelan is one of the oldest Brown praetorians, who had to resign as his spin doctor after helping bring down Peter Mandelson (who loathes him). Behind the scenes he has an absolutely essential role at the heart of Team Brown — doling out advice on strategy, and making sure Unite stays on side with its donations flowing to the party. The last thing he needs is strikes by his own union getting in the way.
And as the new decade opens, plenty more strikes are in prospect. Four days before Christmas a walk-out by baggage handlers at Heathrow was halted on the eve of action. On the London Underground the workers responsible for electrical maintenance are furious about pay and overtime rates. They opted for a strike beginning on 22 December, to run over Christmas, with a shutdown then only narrowly averted. The union involved? Whelan’s Unite, again.
It has been suggested that these developments are rooted in in-fighting, with various factions attempting to prove how robust they can be ahead of an eventual tussle for control of the union.
All this is profoundly problematic for Whelan. Until now he and Brown have had considerable success encouraging their comrades not to cause too much trouble. Even when the Prime Minister was at his most vulnerable, no significant union figure of influence joined the efforts to remove him. Amid Labour’s difficulties there have been the usual warnings — from the giant public services Unison and the CWU last year — of funding being withdrawn from the party. Now check the electoral commission’s most recent register of donations and you’ll see that the threats have not been acted on. The trade union funds continue to pour in for Labour.
But inflation — the mother and father of pay disputes — is spiking in Britain and could easily be running above 3 per cent by the spring. It is wildly premature to talk about a government potentially ending amid industrial strife and discontent, but just as the busiest months for pay negotiations begin, union members and their negotiators can feel the ground shifting below their feet on prices. Very soon the worker looking not to be left behind may regard a 2.5 per cent settlement unfavourably.
For the Prime Minister this is a situation pregnant with obvious dangers. Will the unions take all this calmly? Already, even before the pick-up in inflation, the movement’s leaders were condemning the prospect of anything resembling a pay freeze as an outrage. It is unlikely that they will be any more sanguine as the situation worsens. Whelan and Brown’s trick in dealing with this will surely have to come in persuading union leaders to hold back from any action because they would get even lower settlements in the event of a Conservative victory at the election. Labour must hope that grass-roots officials and individual members buy this analysis and lay off. Let’s see.
The Conservatives — keen to avoid making enemies — have presented themselves in recent years as a party willing to make peace with the brothers. In a different economic era in 2008, David Cameron even appointed a union emissary, former MEP Richard Balfe, to undertake this unlikely missionary work on his behalf. The Tory leadership said in the autumn that talk of widespread industrial action on pay is merely sabre-rattling. Do they actually believe this? If so, they look to be in for a shock.
Reliable reports are emerging that a war chest of up to £25 million has been prepared by the unions to take on a Tory government if Cameron wins the election. This money would be used to test Cameron’s nerve: to lead resistance to cuts and to fight for increased pay for members. Those with memories of the Heath government will know that Tories who are squeamish about the need for radical reform do cave in, if the pressure is strong enough. So how might Cameron respond to the threat of all-out industrial war? For a new prime minister it would be quite a test.
Whelan, employing his never less than colourful language, will doubtless explain to union leaders that their fight will be made much easier if Cameron is denied a working majority. Come on mate, go easy. Want to fight Tory cuts? Then allow Gordon a little bit more slack now. For old times’ sake, hold off the strike action, comrade. Strengthening Gordon’s hand means weakening Cameron’s. And let’s not forget who the real class enemy is.
But if such attempts at diplomacy fail there could be strikes much sooner. Then it wouldn’t be long before the connection gets made between the resulting disruption, the Prime Minister’s jolly bag-man Whelan and another Labour PM struggling to control the unions. That’s the last thing Brown’s party needs ahead of an election: an explosion of militancy stirring bad memories.
Iain Martin is deputy editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated January 9, 2010