A Cameron-Murdoch alliance could devastate the BBC

Many Conservatives sympathise with James Murdoch's attack on the BBC as a state behemoth

Does the BBC have much to fear following James Murdoch's turn as Gordon Gekko at the Edinburgh International Television Festival?

In previous years the rhetorical excesses of his MacTaggart Lecture, which invoked George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four to damn the BBC, could have been playfully batted away by the corporation's executives.

But this year, with a Tory party increasingly sceptical of the BBC's size and scale on the brink of power, the corporation faces the threat of a powerful alliance between Cameron's Conservatives and Murdoch's News Corporation.

If Cameron promises to cut the BBC's funding and to reverse what Murdoch described as its "chilling" landgrab he could secure the support of the Sun and the News of the World at the next election.

Murdoch may have delivered his speech to an audience of television executives, but it was dominated by his concern that the BBC's vast online presence prohibits any attempt to successfully charge for news websites.

Murdoch Sr has declared that he intends to charge for all his news websites by next summer and his papers are likely to line up behind those politicians who promise to curb the influence of the BBC.

The Conservatives have already demonstrated their willingness to challenge the successive licence fee increases the world's largest broadcaster has enjoyed under Labour.

In May, parliament voted on a Tory proposal to freeze the licence fee, with Cameron arguing that during the recession the BBC needed to do "more with less".

The proposal made little political impact and was easily defeated by 334-156 votes, but it set an important precedent. BBC executives are more troubled by Cameron's suggestion that the licence fee could be reviewed annually, exposing the corporation's £3.6bn annual income to unprecedented scrutiny.

Many Conservatives have great sympathy with Murdoch's call for the BBC to become "far, far smaller". Like him, a significant number believe that the continued expansion of the BBC even as its commercial rivals lose millions in advertising revenue is intolerable.

At a time when the government's Digital Britain report has argued that the licence fee should be "top-sliced" and shared with the BBC's competitors, the corporation finds itself unusually short of friends and increasingly vulnerable.

The BBC Trust's perfunctory response to Murdoch's harangue did little to raise morale within the broadcaster. Unless the BBC's leading figures begin to make the positive case for its funding far more effectively than they have done, they may be unable to prevent the formation of a potentially destructive alliance.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.