You can’t argue that this government hasn’t got its priorities clear. New Labour commits up to £100 billion to propping up the failed Northern Rock bank in a desperate bid to keep the financial system intact but won’t spend relatively smaller sums to maintain disabled workers’ jobs or keep post offices open. In these cases, “commercial considerations” come first, second and last above those of the community at large.
So when union officials met Gordon Brown last weekend in a last-ditch effort to save jobs at Remploy, which is government subsidised, they got nowhere. Disabled workers at factories around the country will see their plants close down for good this week as a result. Factories in York, Hartlepool and Brixton were put up for sale last week while workers were still inside them. In all, 28 plants employing more than 1,600 workers are set to close because the government says they “do not give value for money”. Some furniture production is heading from Sheffield to Bulgaria, where wages are lower.
Meanwhile, the closure of 2,500 post offices is going ahead at speed, ignoring protests throughout the country and a petition organised by the National Association of Sub Postmasters, which drew more than two million signatures. The government says they are making “unsustainable" losses of £200m a year, a drop in the ocean compared to the financial support given to Northern Rock.
The charity Help the Aged has launched an attack on the government's "decimation" of the network, warning today that many more branches may end up being closed. The Post Office could lose the right to hand out pensions and other benefits. This would cut down the numbers of customers and make thousands of remaining branches unprofitable. The Post Office has already lost the right to supply key services, including passports and television licences. At present, 4.2 million people, including 1.7 million pensioners, receive their benefits via the Post Office Card Account, which is going out to tender. David Sinclair, Help the Aged's policy director, said: "If the Post Office loses this contract the network will lose significant footfall. It would be devastating to the Post Office network and we would undoubtedly see more closures than the current batch."
The anger among Remploy workers has shaken and somewhat shamed the unions involved, who had pinned all their hopes on a government U-turn. Sharon Mackillop, who was on a demonstration outside York Minster, had worked in the city’s Remploy plant for 11 years. She said: "I feel let down - the government is treating us like dirt. We're like part of a family and we want to stay together. Instead, we have been betrayed."
This week five senior GMB union officials resigned from Labour over the “despicable betrayal” of disabled workers at Remploy factories. GMB national secretary Phil Davies, a member for 30 years, said the party’s treatment of Remploy workers was so unjust that he had no option but to resign. Their letter says: “We have been misled by the secretary of state, who made assurances at the 2007 Labour Party conference which he did not keep. I have been a national trade union officer for 20 years and have never seen workers treated in such a despicable way. Our members are being ignored and bullied into submission.”
It’s great that the five have resigned and it’s another sign that New Labour is beginning to fall apart. But what took them so long? Why did they perpetuate the illusion that Brown was for turning and lead their members up the garden path? New Labour has not “betrayed” anyone. Brown, like Blair before him, leads a party and a government that is committed to the profit-and-loss account approach to public services. This has driven their policies in the NHS and in government-controlled operations like the Post Office and Remploy. Union leaders seem to be the only people in Britain not to be aware of this.
AWTW communications officer