Angela Harvey: A positive experience of Tories and Lib Dems working together to save the London taxpayer millions of pounds
As a new Westminster councillor in 2002 I didn’t expect to lead the Conservative Group on London’s local government pay negotiating body, the Greater London Provincial Council (GLPC) but perhaps my experience setting global reward strategy for a major corporate plus national level pay negotiations experience helped convince my colleagues to give me a try. Labour had the majority of the 32 London boroughs; we Tories had nine; the Lib Dems five. But we held more boroughs than before and we were going to see how to use our votes. Over the next four years working informally with the Lib Dems we achieved many of our objectives, and learnt the following lessons about coalitions:
- If not in a majority find ways to achieve your objectives – we saved Londoners over £200 million so far, and with improved employee relations
- Stick to the work you can do, focusing on where you share principles and values
- Listen to and respect your group members, support group discipline, and keep party stuff away from the joint arena
- Use your officers well and check the facts behind the political statements
- Expect to build trust slowly, and understand how far it goes
A major pay claim about low pay was running prior to the 2002 elections and with targeted strikes in many boroughs it was the focus of the first meeting of the employers’ side and the subsequent joint meeting with the trade unions. Unison was the biggest trade union, with T&G and GMB in support. The unions wanted a high paying London Weighting reintroduced, the weighting having been absorbed into the London pay spine in 1997.
At the meeting I was surprised to see a former business acquaintance, Lorraine Zuleta. She’d been elected that May as a Lib Dem in Southwark where they’d formed a minority administration with informal Tory support. She got the Resources portfolio with its failing revenue & benefits service. An actuary by training, Lorraine had been a senior partner at Towers Perrin where she’d run the international reward practice. As we spoke for the first time in years, we couldn’t know that Tory/Lib Dem cross-party working would bring hundreds of millions of pounds of savings to London’s residents.
With a majority of four, Labour could afford to ignore the opposition parties; previously the Lib Dems had usually voted with them. However, this time around Conservatives and Lib Dems identified shared objectives and values - to ensure good services for residents delivered by employees with reasonable pay and conditions at a reasonable cost. Discussions between our groups started with corridor meetings between Lorraine and me, and it was only later that Lorraine spoke with the Tory group and I with the Lib Dems. Not everyone was comfortable sharing, and the groups never met as one.
While the dispute and strikes dragged on we examined the claim in detail and recognised that an easy settlement could only be reached by pushing large amounts of money across the table. It was agreed that all group leaders would form a joint working party to hammer out what was acceptable to all party groups. The Labour chair and her deputy, Lorraine and I met and determined a principle on which we could agree: no local government officer employed in London would receive an hourly rate below what we now call the London Living Wage.
Once agreed our officers conducted further and more extensive research to establish the fullest picture across the boroughs. We had a surprising result – of the nearly 200,000 employees in London, fewer than ten were paid less than the London Living Wage, not counting employee benefits, pensions, etc.
The full GLPC met and the employers’ side congratulated the TUs on having already achieved their objective on low pay, and thus no offer was required. Not unexpectedly the TUs took further strike action but the boroughs were better prepared than before and maintained services, sometimes at better value.
In a move to settle the dispute, but with Tory and Lib Dem opposition, the Labour group offered the TUs an increase of £200 p.a. for each employee. (Do the math: c200,000 employees x £200 p.a. for ever = £40 million compounded every year to infinity.) The TUs went on strike, this time targeting the leader’s borough, Newham. With full cross-party agreement the offer was withdrawn.
The stand-off lasted for months and the whole dispute was rumoured to have cost the unions several million pounds. ACAS were called in to see how they could help. Over time a number of things happened: all parties on the employers’ side held their resolve; many of the key TU players took retirement; a new GLPC constitution was written and different TU officers took their place on the other side of the table.
What’s happened since? From 2006 London Councils formally worked on a cross-party basis as Conservatives controlled half the 32 London boroughs and the rest shared between Labour, Lib Dems and coalitions. I chaired the GLPC, Lorraine as Deputy Chair, with Vice Chairs Maurice Heaster, Wandsworth and Christine Bowden, Newham. Cross-party working was the basis from which single status was implemented across the majority of London boroughs. In Southwark Lorraine held her Resources portfolio until 2006 when she took the Culture Leisure & Sport portfolio in the Lib Dem/Tory administration. She stood down from the Cabinet in 2008 and left the Council this May. I held the Housing portfolio in Westminster from 2004-2008 when I became Chair of the Built Environment Policy & Scrutiny Committee. We both went on to qualify as executive coaches at Henley Business School and practice within the public and all other sectors.