Prison Privatisation

Prison officers in the sights
Thursday 31 March 2011 Morning Star editorial – in response to privatisation announcement of Winson Green (Birmingham) prison.

It was always a certainty that this government, like every detestable pack of Tory parliamentarians, would pick a fight with a trade union.

For some reason, Tories appear to look on this as a rite of passage for prime ministers and Cabinets.

To prove that they are red – or blue-bloodedly Tory enough to merit the name, there has to be at least one knock-down, drag-out battle with a union, it seems.

And it's generally a union working in difficult circumstances that the Tories see as vulnerable.

It would appear that this government has chosen its target and it's the Prison Officers' Association.

After all, it fits the definition exactly.

A group of people working in one of the most difficult and sensitive environments possible, with a single employer who can be trusted not to back away from a fight – it's ultimately the government, after all – and a union with a determination that their industry, their people, will stand up for themselves.

It's a definition that could have been crafted for the miners who were Mrs Thatcher's target and has now been applied to the prison officers.

And it's appropriate that it's Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke who should be handed the starting pistol.

After all, he's one of the longest-serving class warriors in the Cabinet and has a long reputation as a nasty piece of work who seems able to turn his hand to anything provided that it bashes working people.

He has served under every poisonous Tory Prime Minister since Mrs Thatcher and has a record of class war that can hardly be matched throughout his party.

Clarke has started the campaign as he clearly means to go on.

Hardly had he announced that he intended to privatise three prisons than he warned that he would bring in the military if the prison officers' union had the temerity to resist the sell-off.

And he repeated the threat several times during his speech, in the full knowledge that the POA has a clear policy against such sell-offs.

A more deliberate and coldly calculated provocation is difficult to imagine.

The POA position is easy enough to understand.

After all, everyone knows that the prison service has been struggling with an increased workload and strangled resources for years.

So to announce that these privatisations are there in order to cut costs by "£216 million over the life of the contracts" is the most inflammatory thing that Mr Clarke could throw in the faces of hard-working prison officers who have had their job cut out to maintain an under-resourced system for decades.

And he's doing it in the full knowledge that a reserve power putting a legal ban on prison officers taking industrial action was reimposed by Labour minister Jack Straw in 2008, to his eternal discredit.

There is no doubting the prison officers' courage and commitment to the fight against privatisation.

They have shown it before, in 2007, when the union risked everything to hold a 12-hour protest.

And they will show it again. How they show it will be for the officers to decide themselves and we would not presume to tell them how to fight the corner that they have so bravely protected before.

They will clearly have to be somewhat circumspect if their union is to survive the battle. The lesson of the NUM is a hard one to contemplate.

But one thing they can be sure of is that this newspaper and all socialists of goodwill will support and defend them with whatever forces we can muster.

They have shown their commitment to the labour movement in the past. It's time for the movement to reciprocate in kind.

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