We shall never know precisely what Labour’s employment spokesman Stephen
Byers MP said unattributably about the killing of Labour/TUC links to
four journalists over the Dover sole and Muscadet in Blackpool’s Seafood
Restaurant last week, so I shall try to make an educated guess.
The Mirror’s Labour loyalist political editor John Williams, who was
there, confirms that Mr Byers speculated about a possible break. His
other hosts, from the Express, Times and Telegraph, naturally pursued
him as to how this might come about. The Telegraph’s Jon Hibbs reports
jotting down after the dinner the phrase ‘ballot of membership’.
The journalists certainly got the impression, as Jill Sherman who was
there for the Times says, that if a Labour Government were troubled with
strikes it would ballot the party’s membership on breaking its
institutional connections with organised labour. Not surprisingly, the
Express led with ‘Labour to dump unions’. Labour leader Tony Blair, it
said, was ready to sever Labour’s historic links with the union
Mr Byers, who had left the dinner feeling that he might have said too
much, promptly admitted having talked to the four journalists. He
protested that he had been grossly misinterpreted. The journalists, not
unnaturally, stood by their free translations of what he had said.
So what’s new? It’s an everyday story of Westminster folk. It reveals
the exact pedigree of most news stories, political or otherwise: by much
munching out of even more massaging. When I was in Number 10, and had an
extensive knowledge of journalists’ lunching alliances, I had a pretty
fair idea which eating house cooked particular stories. It was never
very difficult then to pin down the actual source.
Mr Byers saved everybody the trouble by putting his hand up. He hadn’t
much option. Mr Hibbs reports that a dozen BBC staff were eating in the
same restaurant. Against this background, it was assumed that Mr Byers
knew what he was doing and, given Labour’s Stalinist control over news
dissemination, that he had Mr Blair’s cover for doing it.
That is not beyond the bounds of possibility, given that Labour as well
as the Tories see political advantage in union blood sport these days.
But the lesson of the affair is not that unions which strike are
universally unpopular. It is that, if you do intend to fly a kite, don’t
do so in front of witnesses. Do it privately, one to one, and most
certainly not over dinner in a passable imitation of a BBC canteen.
You should also be aware that, even if you behave with the utmost
discretion, you could still be fingered if the story takes off. The
media have become fascinated with themselves and their sources. It is a
sign of pomposity.
Sir Bernard Ingham writes for the Daily Express