Unions have a say, but do not hold balance of power in leadership

If you pays your moneys to Labour, you shoulds be able to makes your choices.

Trade unions do not hold the balance of power in the Labour leadership election, as Rachel Sylvester argues in today's Times. The last time Labour's electoral college (MPs, members and affiliates) went to the polls, Harriet Harman won the vote despite not receiving a single union nomination.

Sylvester is right to argue that the leadership candidates are in danger of looking inward rather than reaching out to the voters they must win backm but that has nothing to do with the voting system Labour is using. In fact, the involvement of more than three million people who pay to be affiliated members of the Labour Party makes the contest more open than simply having 140,000 members balloted or allowing 250 MPs to decide.

Sylvester bemoans that some people can vote five times by virtue of being an MP, if they are also a member of a union and the Co-Op and the Fabian Society. But Sylvester herself could have four of those votes just by paying £50 or so in annual subs. If you pay your money, you should be able to make your choice.

Turnout is low in the union section, but because so many have the opportunity to be involved, participation is high. Nominations do matter, but ultimately it is a membership ballot and not a block vote. It is likely that many of the smaller unions may not even nominate this time round because the more moderate leaderships fear their more militant executives may back Diane Abbott.

Their toy lollipops

Last week, David Miliband scored a major victory over Andy Burnham by securing the endorsement of Usdaw. Last time, it backed Hazel Blears; and as Usdaw is the only union HQ based in Burnham's north-west stronghold, it will be a big disappointment for him.

That said, David Miliband is unlikely to get many more union nominations, and yet he, like Harman last time, is likely to poll better among union members. Could Burnham pull off the big nomination from Unison, as the then health secretary, Alan Johnson, did last time?

There is a myth that Jon Cruddas swept the union section last time but he secured only the Unite nomination. That success came with serious organisational support in the shape of a phone-bank tele-canvassing members.

This was innovative in 2007 but is now the mainstay of any serious campaign. David Miliband has activists phone-banking already. It does seem that the Unite nomination is up for grabs, with collective rights (the rules governing recognition agreements and strike ballots) the issue that matters most to the Unite executive.

Perhaps the most controversial nomination last time was that of the Communication Workers Union (CWU), because its conference delegates actually overturned the executive's nomination and backed Peter Hain. The CWU is a single-issue union with privatisation of the Post Office its dominant concern. Whoever offers the strongest reassurance (Diane Abbott?) is likely to win the nomination.

The GMB conference in Southport hosted the first hustings, though Ed Balls didn't make it until the second day because of parliamentary commitments. Its membership illustrates another often overlooked aspect of union politics: Sylvester complains that 61 per cent of members are employed in the public sector, but many GMB, Unite and, to a lesser extent, Unison members are employed by private-sector providers performing contracted-out public services.

The big cross-cutting concern for union members at the moment, however, is pensions. If the leadership candidates want to get ahead in the game, they should be looking to pre-empt John Hutton's pensions review and make some reform recommendations of their own. At the very least, they should challenge Hutton's review by putting down some red lines.

The Tories clearly view pensions as a bargaining chip to use with the unions, Richard Balfe actually telling the Telegraph:

Public-sector pensions will clearly be a very significant issue in the wider relationship between the government and the unions . . . Public-sector pensions are like lollipops for kids.

Far more sensible discussions will need to happen over the future of public-sector pensions, and Labour's leadership candidates are well placed to lead that debate.

Richard Darlington is head of the Open Left project at Demos

Richard Darlington is Head of News at IPPR. Follow him on Twitter @RDarlo.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.