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17 March 2010

BA strike: can Brown call in a favour from his old friend?

Probably not, precisely because this is an industrial and not a political dispute.

By James Macintyre

Let’s be clear: the Conservative Party’s attempts to portray Labour as having reverted to trade-union dependency, against the background of the British Airways cabin crew strike, are cynical and opportunistic, if the natural stuff of general elections. Ask almost any union baron about Gordon Brown and he will explain that the Prime Minister is as reluctant to turn the clock back to the days of “beer and sandwiches” in No 10 as was his predecessor Tony Blair.

As to union “power”, the funding issue is a red herring (as is the laughable talk of a return to the anyway exaggerated “Winter of Discontent”), exploited by a Tory party desperate to get on track with old stunt tactics of the sort we saw this week when Conservative staffers wore masks depicting the political director of Unite and Brown enforcer, Charlie Whelan — presumably to the bemusement of the general public. Unite’s donations to Labour are out in the open and much less suspicious than those to the Conservatives from the self-confessed non-dom Lord Ashcroft.

Meanwhile, it is not surprising that Brown has refused to condemn Unite directly, given his extreme closeness to Whelan. This is the spin doctor who, while Brown was chancellor, sought to assassinate perceived political enemies within Labour to ensure loyally and ruthlessly that his man reached the top job — leaving a string of “Blairites” in his wake. He is now is said to vet donations and help ensure that funds from Unite are channelled to Labour and to the local Labour parties of leading figures, including Brown and Ed Balls.

In the lead-up to an election Brown desperately wants to win, the Unite row could not have come at a worse time for him. It would be very surprising if he were not doing all he could to persuade Whelan to perform one last service to his master, and persuade his union to back down on the BA dispute.

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Unfortunately for Brown, the defence that this is an industrial and not a political dispute is all too true, in that it is almost certainly beyond Whelan’s control. And ironically, given the Tory claim that Labour is once again at the mercy of the unions, surely the last priority for BA cabin crew is saving Labour’s bacon.