In an exclusive interview with Left Foot Forward, Charlie Whelan has singled out Eric Pickles for undertaking a "witch-hunt" against trade unions.
Charlie Whelan has given an exclusive interview to Left Foot Forward about his work for Unite, his relationship with the Labour party, and the British Airways strike.
He singled out Eric Pickles for undertaking a “witch-hunt” against trade unions which he said was motivated by the work that Unite was doing in persuading its members to vote Labour. He dismissed rumours that he was running Labour’s general election campaign and said he was “working legitimately in a trade union”. Whelan also drew a distinction between Unite members’ donations to the Labour party and those of Lord Ashcroft.
Will Straw: Do you agree with Gordon Brown’s statement about the British Airways strike where he said, “It is the wrong time, it is unjustified, it is deplorable. We shouldn’t have a strike.”
Charlie Whelan: Well you know its not up to me to disagree or agree with the PM. I’m the political director of Unite and no way would I dream of getting involved in any of the industrial disputes. And if I did, I’d have the General Secretary after me straight away.
The problem with the BA strike, as I see it, is that we have an extremely intransigent management led by Willie Walsh who seems to have a record of anti-trade unionism. And all the union wants to do is get around the table and sort out the dispute. It’s not for governments to intervene in sorting out disputes between private employers and employees. But I would say this, I remember the days of Thatcher and there were certainly a lot more strikes in her day than there are today.
WS: Some people are saying that the industrial action could destroy British Airways. Do you agree?
CW: You have disputes and they have to be resolved. The union represents the workers and clearly on this side the Tories are playing their traditional role of representing the employers. What’s really frightening is firstly the Tories don’t want to resolve this dispute but also there is almost a witch-hunt of being a trade unionist. It’s not illegal to be a trade unionist. I’m proud to be a trade unionist. In fact, in countries where you don’t have trade unions you don’t have democracy. Is that what Eric Pickles is saying when he writes to the Prime Minister and demands to know which Labour MPs are trade unionists? I think it’s frightening.
WS: Back to BA for a moment, is there a reason why this is an issue for Heathrow and not for Gatwick
CW: Look, I’m political director and not industrial director. It’s obviously a big problem and Mr Walsh seems to have caused big problems wherever he’s been and hopefully this will be resolved.
WS: How do you see as the relationship between Unite and the Labour party?
CW: I think the first thing that many people forget is that the Labour party was born out of trade unions. So there’s no shock horror that unions are involved. It’s changed; it’s evolved. We’ve got one member, one vote. We don’t have big block votes any more. But most working people, most Unite members recognise that they want the union to be involved in politics and clearly that’s the Labour party. Indeed, it’s in the rulebook of Unite that the political party we affiliate to is the Labour party.
WS: Only 46% of Unite members voted Labour in 2005 while another poll shows that a third support the Conservatives, what do you make of those statistics?
CW: Be careful here. Some Tory paper did a bogus poll of Unite members. We’ve talked to tens of thousands, almost hundreds of thousands of people in the last couple of years and there are a proportion of Unite members who are Tories. But the current telephone canvassing we’ve been doing of Unite members shows that it’s only 8.5%. I expected it to be higher than that. And when we first started doing polling two years ago it was up closer to 20%. Our canvassing, our polling, and our surveys have shown that things are moving away from the Tories quite substantially and there are a very large number of people who have not made up their mind.
WS: Has the merger to create Unite been a problem given the extra power it now wields?
CW: I think Nick Robinson made a fair point this morning on the Today programme. Unite is a number of big unions coming together and therefore there are more MPs who are members of Unite. It’s not a problem but it means that the Tories have focused their attack more on Unite than they’ve been able to do in the past. But it’s not necessarily a problem. The merger has been politically very good and that’s why they’re attacking us. If they were weak they wouldn’t be attacking us.
WS: Unite has given £11 million to the Labour party since Gordon Brown became leader. Isn’t this a case of buying influence?
CW: Let’s be clear about this. The first thing to say is that millions of working people pay their union dues and every so often, because of Tory legislation, they vote on whether or not they want a political fund including giving money to the Labour party, which they do. A small proportion of every hard-working families’ union dues goes to political work, much of it going to the Labour party. For example, my wages are paid for out of the political fund, not out of the general fund. The Tories conveniently forget that. It’s quite different from a man who doesn’t pay tax in this country. Every single one of our members pays tax in this country. They pay a small amount of their dues to the Labour party. I can’t see anything wrong with that. We should be proud of that.
WS: The Sun and the Mail have picked up on the Tory dossier showing that half the Cabinet have accepted donations from Unite. Should we be concerned by this influence?
CW: As a federal body, the political committees in the Unite regions will donate money to their local Labour party and it’s no surprise to me that this is happening. The way it works is that the regional political committees decide which local parties they support. But it’s not dictated from Unite headquarters.
I also think it’s important that the union doesn’t hide, which we haven’t. When we reballot our members and ask “do you want to have a political fund with some going to the Labour party”. They vote massively 80 or 90 per cent yes that they do want that.
The Tories introduced this legislation to try and destroy the unions and the funding for the unions and they’ve failed.
WS: What about the number of Labour MPs who are associated with Unite?
CW: We have a “Unite Working in Westminster” glossy leaflet. There’s about 160 MPs in our group. Lindsay Hoyle is the secretary; Jim Sheridan is the Chair and, unlike much of what the Tories do, we don’t hide that.
Working people need representation in Parliament on many issues. It might be their pension scheme, it might be asbestoses. We launched a campaign on the temporary workers bill. That was led by us and we persuaded the Government to go along with it. We’re very proud of the fact that we managed to persuade the Government to introduce a car scrappage scheme. And when people are saying “Oh Whelan’s been in No 10”. Yes, I’m proud I’ve been in there and argued for the scrappage scheme which has saved tens of thousands of jobs for ordinary people and I argued very strongly for that with the Prime Minister. That’s my job.
WS: There has been concern recently that the selections of John Cryer and Jack Dromey have increased the influence of Unite in the Labour party.
CW: Most people who go into a selection will be in a union and most of them will be in Unite. What’s absolutely key here is that the Labour party has one member, one vote in the constituencies. Now as you get closer to the election, the process slightly changes because you haven’t got time to go through the whole process and therefore a committee of the NEC picks people and now and again people are upset that they’re not on the shortlist. Apart from the one that happened yesterday, I don’t know of any other circumstances where anyone has really kicked up a fuss. My view is that if they really kick up a fuss, put them on the shortlist and let the members decide. In fact, out of the four or five people on the shortlist, three are Unite members. May the best person win and they normally do.
WS: Have Unite been pushing female candidates around the country?
CW: Yes, of course. One of the things you can say about the political structure at Unite is that right through the whole structure, it’s 50-50. Every single national political committee is 50% women, 50% men. And that’s right and that’s something that we’ve very much argued for and won in the union.
WS: Why do you think James Purnell and Peter Mandelson intervened in the Stalybridge and Hyde selection?
CW: I’ve been around a long time but people get upset and they get out of their pram a bit and they tend to like to go to the press, don’t they, and complain. But I’m sure it will all be sorted out. To be honest, I wasn’t even aware that the committee had met to tear up the short list. So much for my great power!
WS: What’s your reaction to Michael Gove’s charge that you’re part of Labour’s new “militant tendency”?
CW: [Laughs]. Anyone who knows me would find it very amusing that I was called part of a militant tendency. What’s interesting is looking at some of the polls recently, they’ve never moved despite all this stuff about me. Sometimes the Westminster village and the chattering classes in Westminster can get things out of all proportion. What affects working people today is that the unemployment figures have gone down. Some story about me – some person no-one’s ever heard of – doesn’t resonate with the public and doesn’t affect things.
Actually the Tories don’t have any policies. We’ve got their children’s minister spending half the day making ludicrous accusations about me. In one sense it’s funny, in another sense, seriously, what are they doing? It’s totally bonkers and that’s why I’m still convinced that Labour’s going to win the election because we’re putting forward policies and they’re not. They’re quite happy to have a witch-hunt against trade unions but is that going to win them any votes? I’m not sure it is.
WS: What are the main things that Unite are pushing for in the manifesto?
CW: I’ve been involved in discussions with Ed Miliband but we really have been pushing for issues that ordinary people care about like energy prices. Our members aren’t so well paid. We want tougher regulation of the gas and electricity markets. These are bread and butter issues that our members care about which we’ve been pushing to get into the manifesto. That’s more important to Unite members than perhaps some of things we might have pushed in the past.
WS: There’s a renewed focus on fox hunting which you’ve talked about in the past.
CW: To be honest, I don’t really give a monkeys [laughs]. Personally, I would never have banned fox hunting but it says everything you need to know about the Tories that they want to un-ban it.
WS: What other disagreements have you had with the leadership?
CW: If you’re in Government you tend to have to support things, don’t you? When you’re on the fringes of Government or when, like me, you’re not even working for the Government, you can more or less say what you like but you tend to think that the Government’s doing a good thing so if you do disagree you tend to keep your trap shut … if you’re disciplined. And as someone who grew up in the communist party, I’m pretty disciplined.
WS: What’s your role in the general election campaign?
CW: I’ve read lots of wonderful, flowery things about me in the general election campaign They say, “I’m right at the heart of it … I’m planning it … I’m running the whole general election campaign.” The truth is I work for Unite and during the general election campaign I’ll be working for Unite on our campaign to get hundreds of thousands of Unite members to vote Labour. I don’t work for the Labour party or the Government or anybody else and I think that’s really important.
In fact, I was talking to Peter Mandelson the other day. What Unite is doing is new and revolutionary. It’s something we’ve learnt from Obama. We’ve learnt how important it is to be talking to people through our virtual phone banking. Actually asking members what they think, communicating with members in key seats is hugely important. I know the difference that we’re making and I understand why the Tories are attacking me so hard and attacking Unite so hard because for the first time in a long time, we’re making a real difference in this election. We’re going to help Labour win this election so yeah sure I’m going to get attacked and everyone says I’m running the Labour election campaign or saying that I’m going into No 10, which is absurd. But I’m not, I’m working for Unite.
WS: And does it bother you when you become the story?
CW: No. It worried me when I was a spin doctor. But I’m not going to hide away or skulk because the Tories want to turn me into some kind of bogey figure. I’m working legitimately in a trade union, trying to help the Labour party win a general election. And I’m going to carry on doing that.Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.