Durham Labour members move to distance themselves from Durham County Council on the TA dispute

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Pressure piles on Durham County Council as the local Labour Party comes out in support of the Teaching Assistants and its leader Jeremy Corbyn in calling for Labour councillors to “get it sorted”

In an extraordinary week for the Labour Party in County Durham, four Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) have passed motions in support of the Teaching Assistants, calling for a reopening of negotiations and the withdrawal of the threat of redundancies. 

The clash with the TAs has caused divisions within the Labour Party over a number of months, with the Labour Group under council leader Simon Henig insisting that the party’s councillors have no choice but to impose new contracts on the Teaching Assistants, resulting in a potential 23% pay cut, while many of the party’s grassroots members have joined the TAs on picket lines and demonstrations which have taken place all over the county. The proposals mean that over 2,000 TAs will be sacked and re-engaged at the turn of the year. 

For several months, the Teaching Assistants have mounted a visible and highly effective campaign, which has garnered support far and wide, including from local Labour Party members. Over the weekend the Labour Party in North West Durham, City of Durham, Darlington and Blaydon formally pledged their support for the Teaching Assistants, agreeing motions asking that the negotiations be reopened and the redundancy notices withdrawn. Several prospective Labour councillors were part of the group in County Durham who initiated the action.

 It is expected that other local party groups will make similar pleas in the coming days. Over the weekend, hundreds of activists, including Labour members from every constituency in County Durham, also signed a letter produced by Durham Labour Left (a coalition including Red Labour and Momentum amongst others) in protest at the Council’s actions.

During the debate at County Hall on Saturday, attended by almost 80 local party members from within the City of Durham constituency, it became clear that the Council’s position was in a tiny minority. Not a single councillor was prepared to speak up in favour of the Labour Council’s argument. It was evident that some councillors had not even been presented with the full facts of the dispute in their briefings from council officers. In the end, the motion in support of the TAs passed without any dissenting voices, though a few councillors did abstain.

The desire to end this dispute stretches from the grassroots of the party right to the top. In July, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn came to the Gala and implored Durham County Council to “get it sorted”. On Friday several local Labour MP’s visited Simon Henig seeking a solution. 

With the leader, many of the regions MPs and a huge majority of the members of the regional Labour Party urging Labour councillors to settle, pressure on Durham County Council is mounting. The Council is now in a very difficult position, unable to win the support of its own party, the public or parents at the schools affected by strike action. 

TA activist Helen Cook, who spoke at the meeting, said:

“The people in that room had come there to hear the facts with an open mind and were very interested in what we had to say. The one thing that disappointed me was that no one from council who had any responsibility for this decision was there to defend it. Obviously we were over the moon with the result.”

The disagreement has highlighted the divide between the local party establishment and the rest of Labour Party, many of whom have been re-energised since Jeremy Corbyn became leader. The aim of that movement is to return the party to its roots in the community. There’s very little, if any, support for the Council’s position on the TA dispute, even from longstanding Labour members. There’s a real feeling that the councillors have got it wrong, and quite frankly, not to support the Teaching Assistants is a betrayal of the proud traditions of the Labour movement and it’s party.

Megan Charlton, a leading member of the TAs campaign committee said yesterday:

“There was not a single voice in support of the Council’s actions but many voices in support of our campaign. It is difficult to see how a Labour council can continue to ignore the opinions of its leader, of its members and of the parents and public of County Durham. Please listen to them and to us and get it sorted.”

Notes

1. The two motions which passed unanimously at the City of Durham all member meeting on Saturday the 26th November read:

From Sherburn and District Branch

“This Constituency asks both Durham County Council to re-open negotiations with the Teachers Assistants and their Trade Unions. We encourage both parties to negotiate in good faith to reach an acceptable agreement which recognises due to vicious Tory Government cuts the serious financial situation of the Council that at the current time the Council could not afford to meet equal pay claims for other staff; that the Teaching Assistants currently employed should be protected so they would be left in no worse financial position and this should be achieved by the Leader of Durham County Council working with recognised trade unions to agree a process for a collective regarding to be undertaken so that a fair and transparent process is adhered to.

We agree that the City of Durham CLP will encourage the MP for City of Durham and other County Durham MPs to work with recognised trade unions to explore and negotiated national terms and conditions for teaching assistants. We further agree to ask the aforesaid MPs to approach the relevant minister to review the Equal Pay and associated Equality legislation to ensure that any unintended negative impacts resulting in the said legislation resulting in low paid workers suffering unnecessary curtailments in their salaries, that those lines in the Act be removed or amended”

From Witton Gilbert Branch: “City of Durham CLP calls upon the council to further engage in negotiations with Teaching Assistants’ Unions to agree a process for collective regrading which ensures that the unique contribution Teaching Assistants make to children’s lives is valued and that no TA’s are left in a worse financial position.”

An addendum was also moved and unanimously agreed from the floor, which called for Durham County Council to pause the threat of dismissal.

2. Durham Labour Left is an informal coalition of Labour Party members who have come together to support the Teaching Assistants and socialist policies within the Labour Party. Their network includes members of Momentum, Red Labour, trade union and community activists as well as several prospective Labour councillors. Their Facebook page can be found here: https://www.facebook.com/DurhamLabourLeft/

3. Unison members voted by 93% to support strike action in October, while the ATL union voted by 84%.

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