Does Thompson now regret his BBC bias comments?

BBC director general’s interview with the NS triggers a new row over impartiality.

Today must be one of those days when Mark Thompson feels as if he can please no one. The BBC director general is under fire after he was photographed entering Downing Strreet, where he received a dressing-down from Steve Hilton, David Cameron's director of strategy, over the corporation's coverage of the government's spending cuts.

The offending item was a briefing note (inadvertently revealed by Thompson) from Helen Boaden, BBC News director, revealing the subject of the meeting and that she recently had lunch with Andy Coulson, who expressed concern "that we give context to our Spending Review Season".

BBC staff and Labour MPs have rightly questioned whether such behaviour is consistent with the corporation's political independence. A senior BBC staffer said: "What the fuck's he doing going in to see Hilton anyway? Management and editorial should be completely separate."

The latest row over BBC impartiality began after Thompson declared, in an exclusive interview with the NS, that there had been a "massive bias to the left" in the past. The director general's words have handed the BBC's critics new ammunition with which to assault the corporation.

Today's Daily Mail gleefully asks: "Is the 'biased' BBC now trying to cosy up to the coalition?" The fact that Thompson was referring to the BBC of 1979 has already been lost and his comments now appear rather naive.

Meanwhile, he is accused of being too close to a government that is likely to cut the licence fee and which welcomes the continuing expansion of Rupert Murdoch's media empire.

When the BBC can please neither its friends nor its enemies, something has gone badly wrong.

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.