The Tories are currently, without the slightest hint of irony or self-awareness, doing their best to give the Labour Party a good hard shoeing over their links with the trade union Unite. This has, of course, come to the public eye as a direct result of the BA Cabin Crew strike, a story which gives the Conservatives an increasingly rare opportunity for a two-pronged attack on the government.
Firstly the Tories have the chance to highlight British Airways as a success story from the ‘golden’ era of mass privatisation (of course they gloss over the disasters of rail privatisation or the selling off of public monopolies which left my part of the world with the highest water bills in the country). BA was, for the last government, a shining airborne phallic symbol for the ‘success’ of Thatcherism, deregulation and the markets.
The second part of the Tory attack is to use this industrial dispute to try to paint a picture every bit as bleak as the infamous “Winter of Discontent” of 1978/9. This is self-evidently ridiculous. The stories from 1979 (I can just about remember it) were of piles of uncollected rubbish and the dead lying unburied in morgues. In 2010 a few holiday-makers will be greatly inconvenienced – annoying if you’re one of them, but hardly the end of the world as we know it.
But perhaps what is most surprising is the Tory attempt to turn this issue into a point-scoring exercise on party funding. Their faces redden as they talk of Unite “owning” the Labour Party, and distorting the electoral process by piling all that money into the marginal constituencies. Perhaps the theory is that if they go in hard enough on the trade unions the wider world will forget all about Michael Ashcroft and his ten year bank-rolling of the Tory marginal constituency operation. It’s nearly as laughable as the Tory claim to be the party of the NHS.
I’m not a Labour member or supporter but I can clearly see the difference between an organisation which passes on political donations on behalf of its membership, and a single, off-shore, tax-avoiding donor. Sure, there are flaws with the unions’ political levy, but that process is considerably more transparent than Michael Ashcroft’s tax affairs have been for the last decade.
British Airways used to fly under the slogan “The World’s Favourite Airline”. Michael Ashcroft has, for some time, been the Tories’ favourite airline. The Shadow Cabinet have flown to Israel, Mali, China, Cuba and the Czech Republic – all on Ashcroft’s Falcon 900 private jet.
The most frequent flier has been William Hague, a man whose judgement now appears under serious scrutiny. A close friend of Ashcroft’s since 1998, Hague has never given a straight answer on the Tory paymaster’s tax position. Now that the dirty truth is finally out in the open questions are being asked of Hague’s honesty, not just with the public, but also with the leadership of his party. When did Hague know that Ashcroft was still a non-dom? Did he tell David Cameron? If so, why has Cameron spent his leadership dodging straightforward questions on Ashcroft?
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the BA strike, the most extraordinary thing for me has been the stratospheric level of Tory hypocrisy over the issue of funding. Never mind stone-throwing, Tory preaching on this particular topic is about as sensible as firing up one’s private jet in a glass house.
Another view: Edwin Squire – Corporate Airline v British Union