The New Statesman Interview - Bill Morris

In gentle sorrow rather than anger, he laments that, under Labour, the employers have had all the fa

It says something about the single-mindedness (or perhaps narrow-mindedness) of new Labour that Bill Morris was ever regarded as the enemy. Back in 1995 (which seems like another century, and soon will be), the general secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union was on the wrong side in the Clause Four controversy. Jack Dromey, Harriet Harman's husband, challenged Morris for the union leadership, which was itself a rare event; a victory for the challenger would have been unprecedented but Dromey lost, albeit with more than a third of the vote. Harsh words were exchanged, with Dromey accusing Morris of being "out of touch" and a threat to Labour's chances of election.

Yet Morris, now 60, is a man of moderate views, moderately expressed. He can reasonably claim to have been a "moderniser" before the term became fashionable, organising a conference on Clinton economics in 1993, using outside consultants to streamline his union and earning such enmity from some left-wing sections of the TGWU that they backed Dromey rather than him in the election. He opposed reform of Clause Four reluctantly, on instructions from his executive. Even after his triumph over Dromey and, by extension, Tony Blair, Morris would only say, with characteristic blandness and amiability, that the Labour leader was "a much-loved and respected TGWU member".

So when Morris summons the editor of the New Statesman, ushers him into his chauffeur-driven car and takes him to a posh London restaurant (relax, union watchdogs, I paid the bill) in order to list his complaints against a Labour government, we should regard it as the rough equivalent of Rodney Bickerstaffe issuing a fatwa against all the occupants of No 10. It was the day after a prime ministerial speech which seemed to promise the abolition of the proletariat and its replacement by a wholly middle-class society within a decade (see Roy Hattersley, page 25) but Morris didn't think much of that. "We shouldn't be talking about social classes, but about employment opportunities, the health service, teaching to the highest possible standard, the levels of crime and racism in our society. Socio-economic measurement is a very superficial yardstick of the quality of people's lives and the opportunities they have. To say we want to expand the middle classes: that's a narrow debate, a sterile debate." As for the Third Way, Morris said that he didn't really understand it and, in any case, it wasn't the sort of thing his members discussed; it was just something for the chattering classes.

What, I asked, had his members got out of this government? Morris listed the social chapter, the minimum wage and the working time directive which would benefit, he was careful to say, some of his members. Further, the Fairness at Work white paper represented "at the minimum, a statement of intent by the government to create a workplace that is fairer and better managed".

And then he got on with it. He summed up what he wanted to say in two sentences, repeated several times at dictation speed, just to make sure that the tape recorder got it down: "We were promised, before the election, fairness not favours. Well, we haven't had the fairness, but the employers have certainly had the favours." He then went into the details. For example, the requirement in Fairness at Work that, if a union is to be recognised, those supporting it in a workplace ballot must amount to at least 40 per cent of the total workforce (rather than 50 per cent of those voting): this, Morris says, "asks us to accept a threshold level that is unique to any democratic institution and it can't be fair". Equally unfair was the exemption of companies employing fewer than 20 people from the recognition legislation; and the proposal that protection against unfair dismissal should begin only after a year's employment.

Morris moved on to the question of protection for those who take lawful industrial action. Until now, Britain has had no right to strike. Morris quotes the case of a catering company where 400 workers "had an issue, exhausted the procedures, gave proper notice, all 100 per cent to the letter of the law, and they went on strike for just one day, one day only, and they were still dismissed". The Fairness at Work proposals would put a stop to that, but would still allow employers to dismiss workers who had been on lawful strike for eight weeks. So employers will have an incentive to sit out a strike and the view that a long stoppage could ruin an employer before it ruins a worker, with his mortgage repayments and credit card debts, is one that could only have come from the bosses. "It is a charter for employers to frustrate people's rights," Morris said.

He turned to the working time directive. "This is a piece of protective legislation; it's supposed to be needed for safety. If we need a directive, I don't then see the logic of turning round to people and saying: you can opt out of it. Employers will simply say: well, you can insist on a 48-hour week if you like but look at that chart of the unemployment figures on the wall."

He had put all this to ministers? "Yes, we've had lots of meetings. One thing you can't accuse this government of is denial of access." And ministers hadn't listened? "Yes, they listened but, you see, the employers seem to have more than one door to No 10 and we have only the front door."

He continued: "We have the most flexible labour market of any country in the European Union. British workers have delivered flexibility, they have delivered productivity, they have delivered mobility, they have delivered all that's been asked of them. But still they don't have proper employment protection."

So what would be the result? "We have elections coming up: Euro-elections, Scotland, Wales. I think it will be very difficult to go into the workplace and to motivate our members to work for the government." Might the TGWU make some big gesture, such as severing its links with the Labour Party or withholding funds? "No, if something's wrong with a relationship, you don't break it, you look for what's wrong and try to put it right." I thought this answer very characteristic of Morris who, as a union leader, has never issued idle threats and has preferred understatement. But what, I asked, if a woman was married to a man who persistently had affairs with other people? Surely she wouldn't put up with it indefinitely? "Sometimes," replied Morris, "you have to stay together for the sake of the children." And, pleased with this answer, he repeated it, and laughed.

So that was Bill Morris, trade union leader, on a Labour government. But we also want to hear from Bill Morris, black general secretary, the only one in the trade union movement, on race relations. This is a subject on which he might be expected to hold strong views. Some shamefully racist abuse flew around the TGWU when he was initially elected in 1991, again despite opposition from the Labour leadership. And when one of his sons was very small the local authority wanted to categorise him as educationally subnormal and send him to a special school. Morris dug in his heels and was ready to keep the boy out of school but, moving house a few yards, got himself into the catchment area of a more sympathetic mainstream school. The boy went on to university and took a degree.

But beyond a few mild complaints about stereotyping, Morris is as moderate in his language on race as he is on most other subjects. The education system? "A wonderful system; it offers a wonderful amount of opportunity." Race relations? "I'm very optimistic, very hopeful. It's a generational issue."

He tells me about the TGWU's plan to ask its members to classify themselves by ethnic background so that, probably by 2002, it will have a black and Asian section on its executive, elected by black and Asian members only, rather as women are elected now. I suggested that this might accentuate racial divisions rather than heal them, that some critics would see it as a step to apartheid. "No," he replied. "Apart from me, we have only one black person on the executive and we are the only ones who've been elected in the union's 75 years. You have to have a leadership of the union that looks like the membership of the union, just as America has a government - I'm not just talking about the cabinet - that looks like the people of that country."

So he was talking about a quota system? "No, a representative system. A quota is an arbitrary figure, where you can't move up or down; a representative system means you can move up or down, depending on fluctuations." I found the distinction unconvincing, so I rephrased the question. How far would he go down the American road of affirmative action? "It's not a matter for legislation; it's for organisations to work out for themselves." But did he think a university would benefit from affirmative action? "They have academic criteria for entry based on academic standards. I have no problem with any of that."

This is a good example of how talking to Bill Morris is a bit like playing a game of tennis wholly from the baseline. Somehow, you can never quite get to the net, forcing a gaffe, an indiscretion, or even an exceptional opinion. But that, I think, says more about us than about him. He has been black all his life, a trade unionist most of it. He is a member of two minorities, either of which, if it says a word out of place, risks being pilloried in the Daily Mail and similar quarters. His tone is one of gentle sorrow rather than anger and, though he may think himself sorely provoked by new Labour, it is not likely to change.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 22 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Goodbye to all that boiled cabbage

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The Conservatives have failed on home ownership. Here's how Labour can do better

Far from helping first-time buyers, the government is robbing Peter to pay Paul

Making it easier for people to own their own first home is something to be celebrated. Most families would love to have the financial stability and permanency of home ownership. But the plans announced today to build 200,000 ‘starter homes’ are too little, too late.

The dire housing situation of our Greater London constituency of Mitcham & Morden is an indicator of the crisis across the country. In our area, house prices have increased by a staggering 42 per cent over the last three years alone, while the cost of private rent has increased by 22 per cent. Meanwhile, over 8200 residents are on the housing register, families on low incomes bidding for the small number of affordable housing in the area. In sum, these issues are making our area increasingly unaffordable for buyers, private renters and those in need of social and council housing.

But under these new plans, which sweep away planning rules that require property developers to build affordable homes for rent in order to increase the building homes for first-time buyers, a game of political smoke and mirrors is being conducted. Both renters and first-time buyers are desperately in need of government help, and a policy that pits the two against one another is robbing Peter to pay Paul. We need homes both to rent and to buy.

The fact is, removing the compulsion to provide properties for affordable rent will be disastrous for the many who cannot afford to buy. Presently, over half of the UK’s affordable homes are now built as part of private sector housing developments. Now this is going to be rolled back, and local government funds are increasingly being cut while housing associations are losing incentives to build, we have to ask ourselves, who will build the affordable properties we need to rent?

On top of this, these new houses are anything but ‘affordable’. The starter homes would be sold at a discount of 20 per cent, which is not insignificant. However, the policy is a non-starter for families on typical wages across most of the country, not just in London where the situation is even worse. Analysis by Shelter has demonstrated that families working for average local earnings will be priced out of these ‘affordable’ properties in 58 per cent of local authorities by 2020. On top of this, families earning George Osborne’s new ‘National Living Wage’ will still be priced out of 98 per cent of the country.

So who is this scheme for? Clearly not typical earners. A couple in London will need to earn £76,957 in London and £50,266 in the rest of the country to benefit from this new policy, indicating that ‘starter homes’ are for the benefit of wealthy, young professionals only.

Meanwhile, the home-owning prospects of working families on middle and low incomes will be squeezed further as the ‘Starter Homes’ discounts are funded by eliminating the affordable housing obligations of private property developers, who are presently generating homes for social housing tenants and shared ownership. These more affordable rental properties will now be replaced in essence with properties that most people will never be able to afford. It is great to help high earners own their own first homes, but it is not acceptable to do so at the expense of the prospects of middle and low earners.

We desperately want to see more first-time home owners, so that working people can work towards something solid and as financially stable as possible, rather than being at the mercy of private landlords.

But this policy should be a welcome addition to the existing range of affordable housing, rather than seeking to replace them.

As the New Statesman has already noted, the announcement is bad policy, but great politics for the Conservatives. Cameron sounds as if he is radically redressing housing crisis, while actually only really making the crisis better for high earners and large property developers who will ultimately be making a larger profit.

The Conservatives are also redefining what the priorities of “affordable housing” are, for obviously political reasons, as they are convinced that homeowners are more likely to vote for them - and that renters are not. In total, we believe this is indicative of crude political manoeuvring, meaning ordinary, working people lose out, again and again.

Labour needs to be careful in its criticism of the plans. We must absolutely fight the flawed logic of a policy that strengthens the situation of those lucky enough to already have the upper hand, at the literal expense of everyone else. But we need to do so while demonstrating that we understand and intrinsically share the universal aspiration of home security and permanency.

We need to fight for our own alternative that will broaden housing aspirations, rather than limit them, and demonstrate in Labour councils nationwide how we will fight for them. We can do this by fighting for shared ownership, ‘flexi-rent’ products, and rent-to-buy models that will make home ownership a reality for people on average incomes, alongside those earning most.

For instance, Merton council have worked in partnership with the Y:Cube development, which has just completed thirty-six factory-built, pre-fabricated, affordable apartments. The development was relatively low cost, constructed off-site, and the apartments are rented out at 65 per cent of the area’s market rent, while also being compact and energy efficient, with low maintenance costs for the tenant. Excellent developments like this also offer a real social investment for investors, while providing a solid return too: in short, profitability with a strong social conscience, fulfilling the housing needs of young renters.

First-time ownership is rapidly becoming a luxury that fewer and fewer of us will ever afford. But all hard-working people deserve a shot at it, something that the new Conservative government struggle to understand.