Magazine article The Spectator

Charlie Whelan's War

Magazine article The Spectator

Charlie Whelan's War

Article excerpt

Gordon Brown's chief fixer is ensconced in Unite, the increasingly militant union. Iain Martin asks if the comrades can be persuaded to hold back a wave of strikes

Where is Charlie Whelan these days? What's the old rascal up to? The trade union fixer, spin-doctoring confidant and close friend of the Prime Minister was on my mind after I returned from a trip to my native Scotland for Christmas. I had booked a rail ticket to take me northwards in time for the big day - £112 first class with Virgin. My only choice, seeing as the Unite trade union had engineered a British Airways strike, rendering my £190 British Airways ticket bought months ago useless. That the industrial action was then cancelled, and that I had two tickets, was no consolation. Thousands will, like me, be out of pocket - and wondering what sort of people could even consider a strike at such a time of year.

But what was most interesting about the proposed strike was the silence of the government. Gordon Brown has passed comment on the death of Michael Jackson, The X Factor and the victories of the English cricket team. Yet he had nothing to say about the trade union which was out to cause havoc for the travelling public. It was then I remembered Charlie Whelan. He is now the political director at Unite, regarded by his (many) Labour enemies as one of the most powerful people in the very union outfit that tried to ruin Christmas for BA customers.

To say that Gordon Brown and Charlie are politically close is an understatement.

They are Labour blood brothers, never happier than when they are cooking up an assault on their opponents - either external or internal. From their perspective such a get-together could only be bettered if Ed Balls was available to join in the plotting.

Whelan is one of the oldest Brown praetorians, who had to resign as his spin doctor after helping bring down Peter Mandelson (who loathes him). Behind the scenes he has an absolutely essential role at the heart of Team Brown - doling out advice on strategy, and making sure Unite stays on side with its donations flowing to the party. The last thing he needs is strikes by his own union getting in the way.

And as the new decade opens, plenty more strikes are in prospect. Four days before Christmas a walk-out by baggage handlers at Heathrow was halted on the eve of action. On the London Underground the workers responsible for electrical maintenance are furious about pay and overtime rates. They opted for a strike beginning on 22 December, to run over Christmas, with a shutdown then only narrowly averted. The union involved? Whelan's Unite, again.

It has been suggested that these developments are rooted in in-fighting, with various factions attempting to prove how robust they can be ahead of an eventual tussle for control of the union.

All this is profoundly problematic for Whelan. Until now he and Brown have had considerable success encouraging their comrades not to cause too much trouble. Even when the Prime Minister was at his most vulnerable, no significant union figure of influence joined the efforts to remove him.

Amid Labour's difficulties there have been the usual warnings - from the giant public services Unison and the CWU last year - of funding being withdrawn from the party.

Now check the electoral commission's most recent register of donations and you'll see that the threats have not been acted on. …

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