Labour’s man on employee relations talks unions, industrial tribunals and Bob Crow with Asa Bennett
The unions can often seem like Labour’s mad old aunt in the attic, a valued part of the family but prone to their embarrassing moments.
Calling strikes, or predicting Ed Miliband would lead the party to “destruction”, unions haven’t been the easiest partners. Shadow chancellor Ed Balls had a tough time recently when he spoke to unionists at the TUC congress on the need for restraint in public sector pay, so much so that he was booed and heckled.
Ian Murray wasn’t too bothered by the reception Balls had, as “there were only about 4 or 5 people who booed in an audience of several hundred”.
Murray is one of Labour’s newest MPs, being elected for Edinburgh South in 2010. Now at the age of 36, he was promoted last year to Labour’s business team as minister for employee relations, postal and consumer affairs.
He was an obvious choice owing to his real-life business experience. He has run a bistro and still manages his own events company. Murray has a good training in costing and budgets, and he brings this sense of real-world level-headedness to Labour’s own budget plans.
“If anyone can project forward to Election Day plus-one on what the economy is going to be like, they’re going to be very very rich indeed. In 2012 we can’t make promises about anything until we have seen the state of the economy.”
Other members of the Labour shadow cabinet have put forward ideas, like shadow home office minister Stella Creasy’s suggestion of a “zero budget” spending review. Creasy’s idea would be to put everything “on the table” in order to “reassess every single item of departmental public spending”. In short, everything (even the NHS) would be put under the microscope.
You could wonder if Creasy was speaking out of turn, or at least, not representing Labour’s stance on the economy. As part of Labour’s business team, would Murray agree with her?
“Absolutely, if you start from a zero budget spending review, you can always work forward if you have money available.”
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong in saying that you have to look at where your money is best spent.”
I remind Murray that the “zero budget” would mean that even things like the NHS would not be safe from the scalpel. Former chancellor Nigel Lawson once compared the health service to the closest thing Britain has to a national religion. Surely Labour would want to protect it?
“It is a very emotive topic, people want more money spent on the NHS and that is absolutely right.”
But, does that mean Labour would keep the NHS off the table?
“It shouldn’t be exempt, on the basis of the government are spending £2bn on a top-down reorganisation on it. So if you don’t exempt the NHS and say we’re going to look at spending on the NHS, maybe you could spend that £2bn differently.”
Murray is very sharp and well versed in Labour policy, proudly referencing Ed Miliband’s recent speech on predistribution. But in trying to ensure equality and “fairness”, how can Labour seriously encourage businesses to succeed?
After all, entrepreneurs are the engine of inequality. You can’t have buccaneering tycoons making millions and have greater income equality.
After a palpable pause, Murray scoffs “That is a first year university course exam paper question!” Pointing to his experience as small business owner, he goes on to ask “Do you need an unequal society to make that successful”?
By way of example, he echoes his leader Ed Miliband in arguing that success was acceptable provided it was done “the hard way”.
“People don’t mind those like Duncan Bannatyne, all these people who have made quite a lot of money through hard work and success – as long as they’re paying a proportion of the tax they’re due to be paying” he says.
As Labour’s minister for employee relations, Murray is uniquely placed to comment on the government’s proposals for industrial tribunals (including capping the potential pay-outs for unfair dismissal).
Murray dives into a systematic list of why business secretary Vince Cable is on the wrong path.
He firstly claims the government is f;alsely advertising it as a “proposal for growth”.
“There is no growth potential or jobs to be made on the basis of changing employee rights. They can’t hide behind this”
“Also there is direct correlation between job security and consumer confidence” he adds.
However, when you check the official employment tribunal stats, you find that 71% of cases get withdrawn. Wouldn’t Murray want tribunals to not be wasting time dealing with so many cases?
“71% are withdrawn because people settle,” he responds. “A large proportion of those are discrimination cases, because employers don’t want their dirty laundry washed in public”
Yet how would Murray respond to Sir Michael Snyder, chair of the government’s services’ sector advisory group, who described tribunals as “legalised extortion”. Sir Michael demanded a “barrier for spurious claims”.
“There are already barriers for spurious claims,” retorts Murray. “We agree with the government on reconciliation because that gives the ability for employers and employees to come to some kind of agreement. There are no wrongs in this kind of debate and he is absolutely right to say that.
“There is a public perception of the system rather than the actualities. What the government has tried to do is change of system to match the perception rather than change the perception, and I think that is an incredibly bad law”.
With increasing talk of Brussels-born bureaucracy, Murray can distinguish himself as one of the few politicians happy to defend the European Union. He praises the legislation on maternity and paternity rights
as “something we should be welcoming”.
“If you’re talking about the social chapter, this is something that has taken not just workers’ rights but the whole environment about working people into the 21st century” he adds.
Murray is so enthusiastic to speak up for the EU, it almost starts to seem like it is a European version of “what have the Romans ever done for us?” from Life of Brian. He carries this over when talking about the unions. Jibes from Conservative and LibDems about Labour’s “union paymasters” don’t wash with him.
“I have a wry smile when David Cameron often throws these accusations around. I would rather be funded by 7 million individual contributions by the working people rather than venture capitalists”
Murray points out that “it costs the unions money to take any case to tribunal”. As a result, he argues, it is not in the unions’ interests to take cases to tribunal if they don’t deserve “to have justice served by a judge”.
The government, he adds, “are trying to push an ideological dispute with the unions”. So would he say the unions are being smeared by the government? “Absolutely, they’re doing it for political purposes” he replies.
Bob Crow and RMT
As much as unions can be praised, it is worth wondering if Murray would be as warm about RMT chief Bob Crow. Would he be so warm about Bob Crow, after the RMT’s repeated tube strikes in London?
“First thing I’d like to say is Bob Crow is not affiliated to the Labour party in any way” he rushes to make clear.
After the success of the Olympic Games, Murray adds, “it’s absolutely right that the workers who put in the extra work deserve to get a little bit of that share”.
But would he condone the RMT’s tendency to threaten strikes in order to get their pay rises?
“If you feel as if you’re being done a disservice and you’re asking your staff to go above and beyond the call of duty and the biggest level you’d got is we’d scupper that, you’d use that wouldn’t you?” he replies gnomically.
Murray defends the idea of RMT tube drivers getting bonuses as “we’re talking about a few hundred pounds to some low paid workers, I don’t see what the problem is”.
The problem, I remind him, is that the average salary of a tube driver is £45,000. The national average salary is £26,200, while a nurse starts out on £22,000. Even a trainee tube driver starts out on near £40,000. If he can defend tube driver bonuses as “absolutely right”, what about their salaries?
His first answer is to admit “I’m not really aware of how much tube drivers are paid”.
After I repeat the figure down the phone, the Labour business minister asks “is that a basic salary without overtime?”
I read out quote from a London Underground official in full, saying “Tube drivers earn a fixed salary of around £44,545 per annum plus benefits”.
Finally, Murray answers: “Well, you know, salary levels for any organisation is based on what the market will provide at any time.”
This is odd. Unions exist to buck the market. They use the threat of mass disobedience to ensure pay levels are a premium of what the market would provide.
I probe further. Does Murray believe the tube driver pay is about right?
“I’m not getting into any discussion on whether they should be paid less or more. If that’s what TfL is paying tube drivers, then that’s what they’re worth,” he replies.
He swerves away from answering if that means Bob Crow has done a good job in getting such a bumper pay package for his members. However, he adds enigmatically:
“If tube drivers and people who worked there didn’t feel that Bob Crow and the RMT aren’t doing a good job on their behalf, they wouldn’t be a member. They can vote with their feet.“
Warming to this, he starts to explain the salary difference between a nurse and tube driver.
“You’re comparing a £44-45k to £22k. But you’re comparing someone who has worked a long time in the tubes with a newly qualified nurse.”
However, he insists that he was not making the distinction based on experience, adding:
“You can create any argument you wish by taking the extremities of both. You can say a junior consultant earns X and should they be paid less a tube driver?”
Finally, we move away from the RMT and onto the subject of strikes in general. After the TUC passed a motion to start the ball rolling on plans for a general strike, is Labour worried?
“The thing that concerns us the most is that people feel the need to talk about strike action. If they do, the problem lies with the government.”
What about more severe industrial action, like suggestions that Len McCluskey (chief of the Labour-affiliated Unite Union) may be ready to resort to direct action and occupations. Would Labour back the unions in this case?
“We don’t endorse striking at all, I don’t think anybody wants that kind of action” he replies sharply.
With the general strike being considered by the TUC, it looks like unions will still be on the news agenda. If the unions kick-off a Winter of Discontent, we may be seeing Murray a whole lot more.