Labour tries to limit political damage as BA strike nears

By Ian Dunt

Labour was frantically trying to limit the political damage from its association with the Unite union as the British Airways (BA) strike neared this morning.

The Tories began the day with a fierce and outspoken attack on Labour’s relationship with the union, accusing Gordon Brown of retreating to the days of Militant Tendency – the far-left movement which tried to infiltrate the Labour party in the 70s.

“Has Gordon Brown told Unite he won’t accept any more of their money until they call off this action?” shadow education secretary Michael Gove said this morning.

“Has Gordon told Unite’s general secretaries that he won’t accept their efforts on his behalf until they’ve first guaranteed they won’t bring down a great British company?”

Mr Gove went on to highlight prominent union figures being put forward as party candidates at the general election, including Jack Dromey, Unite’s deputy general secretary and husband of Harriet Harman, and John Cryer, one of Unite’s political officers, who has been selected for the safe seat of Leyton and Wanstead.

Labour responded furiously to the comments.

“Labour politicians from the prime minister downwards have been unequivocal in their criticism of the strike plans by Unite,” a spokesperson said.

“Our funding arrangements have always been clear for all to see and we have always been explicit that the donations from more than six million ordinary trade union supporters do not buy power.”

Responding to an urgent question tabled in the Commons today by Theresa Villiers, transport minister Sadiq Khan accused the Tories of trying to turn the strike into a political issue.

“I would urge both sides to this dispute to start talking again, to try to reach a a settlement,” he said.

The controversy comes just weeks after the Conservatives found themselves in trouble for their association with Michael Ashcroft, deputy party chairman and major donor, who has revealed himself to be a non-dom.

Unite is the most important donor to the Labour party and an important factor in its ability to avoid bankruptcy. It has donated £11 million to Labour in the last three years.

But Labour buckled to pressure and began to distance itself from the union over the weekend, with transport secretary Lord Adonis taking a tough stance against the upcoming strike.

The prime minister backed up that viewpoint yesterday when he appeared on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour branding the strike “deplorable”.

“It’s the wrong time, it’s unjustified, it’s deplorable,” he said.

“We should not have a strike. It’s not in the national interest.”

BA will be hit by two stages of industrial action, from March 20th to 22nd and from March 27th to March 30th, in a dispute over staffing changes on long-haul flights.

The company is hoping to keep most long-haul flights in the air but accepts only 30% of short-haul flights will be kept active.