Sunday, 5 September 2010

Major Misunderstanding Makes War on the Poor

A few months ago, I'm talking to a friend who works for a teaching union. Said friend tells me about an interesting call a friend of hers had received. The call was from the right-wing UK broadsheet the Daily Telegraph. At that time, the Telegraph - or the Torygraph, as many on the left call it - was riding high after exposing the MPs' expenses scandal, which - although many MPs from the opposition benches had also fiddled the system - inevitably hit the Labour government harder.

The man from the Telegraph had been asking about facility time allocations made by the Local Authority my union friend worked for. Facility time is something you may not know about. It's basically a system by which members of staff who are also union officials are able to work full-time on their union activities. The system is paid for by the unions, who pay to provide staff to cover for the officials while they go about their union work.

The system is paid for by the unions. Got that? The salaries of these workers - when they work in the public sector - are paid for by taxes - but the unions recompense the employers out of their own budgets. Facility time is paid for by the unions, to provide a vital service to union members, to ensure that practices and procedures at work are fair and conform to the correct legislation. Unions aren't bolshy, Citizen Smith operations - they're a vital check on employers, who make sure they treat their staff fairly. If you think a check like that isn't necessary, I would like to know which time tunnel you used to arrive here from the late middle ages, so I can kick you back down it to your world of feudal servitude.

Anyway. The Torygraph were snooping around trying to find out how much facility time various organisations were granting. My hunch was they planned to extend the MP's expenses furore to council level, giving their story a new angle and allowing them to run with it for a while longer. This would boost circulation and keep the Torygraph at the head of the news agenda - an odd position for it to occupy as, prior to the expenses scandal, the paper had pretty much been a joke, mocked for its fawning celebrity coverage and tendency to try and cover any story in such a way that it could be illustrated by a picture of a leggy upper class caucasian girl who (usually) would be surnamed Hurley or Goldsmith.

At the time I worked in a bookshop which sold newspapers, so was able to keep abreast of what the tabs and the broadsheets were covering without having to shell out any of my (limited) cash. I braced myself for a classic Telegraph 'retired colonel' piece all about bolshy unions and YOUR HARD-EARNED TAXES being used to pay for them and blah blah Tory fishcakes. And waited.

And waited. And waited.

And had actually almost forgotten about that little piece of info I'd been given until today, when the Torygraph suddenly decided to reveal all this information they'd been sitting on in this nasty litle article.

This delay in publishing is not an accident. In fact, it reveals something rather unnerving about the Coalition's agenda. We've been told that the public sector cuts being touted by the like of George Osborne are merely necessary because of the economic situation. We're told that these cuts have to be more swingeing than even the Tories promised before the election because it turns out the economy is in an even more parlous state than anybody realised. But as my little conversation six months ago reveals, the Telegraph have had this story in the bag for a looooong time, and they're only choosing to go with it now. Why is that?

It's because there is nothing necessary about these cuts. This is ideological. This, however much the Tories may deny it, is class war. Weakening the public sector is about making the vast bulk of ordinary people even more powerless to resist being placed on lower wages, being subject to discrimination by prejudiced employers, or being forced into poverty because their benefits have been cut. The unions, rightly, are campaigning to protect the public sector, and so protect the interests of ordinary people throughout the country. The Telegraph have sat on this story so they can use it as ammunition against the unions in this ideologically-driven war on the poor. And the fact that they sat on the information for six months shows that this war was being planned long before the election - at the very time that David Cameron was promising not to bring in swingeing public sector cuts.

The Telegraph will try to dress this up as a public interest investigation. But if that's really the case, why didn't they strike when the iron was hot - when the issue of expenses abuse was high on the agenda, and people were hungry for stories of corruption in high places? Because the Telegraph don't really care about the public - unless by 'public' you mean that tiny fraction of the body politic able to pay for a seat at one of David Cameron's dodgy dinner clubs. If the expenses scandal had been uncovered under this government, the Telegraph wouldn't have pursued it nearly as aggressively (indeed, the Telegraph have lagged far behind other broadsheets in covering metgate, a story with massive public interest implications which also happens to be massively damaging to the Tory party). The Torygraph deserves its nickname, because it's a propaganda organ of the Tory party - and their latest 'revelations' about facility time are disgusting, biased and sleazy - even for a propaganda rag. Frankly, I preferred the Telegraph when all its journalists were interested in looking up was Liz Hurley's skirt.

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