Is Brown planning a March election?

Labour should avoid delaying an election until June

I've long thought that Gordon Brown should avoid the ignominy of an election at the last possible date (3 June). The parallels with John Major would be too uncomfortable.

So I'm not surprised to see a story in today's Telegraph suggesting that Brown could go to the polls on 25 March. Andrew Porter writes: "Some civil servants have noted that government planning for the period after the end of January is noticeably light, adding to suggestions that No 10 could be planning to call a surprise poll."

A Conservative source told him: "March is in our minds. Gordon Brown knows he still has a small window to cause some element of surprise.

"We are ready if it happens."

An early election would allow Labour neatly to avoid breaking its 2005 pledge not to raise income tax during this parliament. The 50p income-tax rate will take effect from April, raising the possibility that the Tories may be forced not merely to tolerate the tax, but actually to introduce it.

The Conservative civil war over Europe that many Labour activists hope for has so far failed to materialise (dissent has come from such token figures as Bill Cash and Barry Legg), but Brown could yet create the conditions for a Tory tax war.

The new tax rate is loathed by many Conservatives, including Boris Johnson, who has described it as an "assault on London" and has accused Labour of waging "class war". But David Cameron and George Osborne have made it clear that everyone must pay their "fair share". Labour should take the chance to expose these divisions in an election campaign.

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.