Saturday, May 8, 2010

Tata-Corus basher loses election

S Kalyana Ramanathan / London May 09, 2010

Tata Steel can find reason to cheer this weekend from the results of the elections in the United Kingdom; more precisely from the north east corner of the country where Corus has a steel plant.

Sitting Labour MP in Redcar Vera Baird has lost her seat in Westminster to Liberal Democrat rival Ian Swales. The latter won the seat by a massive majority, securing 18,955 votes against Baird’s 13,741 votes. Swales won by an unusual 22 per cent vote swing in favour of the Liberal Democrats.

As the election date of May 6 neared, Baird had almost made the trouble and its resolution at the Corus plant in Redcar her single-point agenda. She provoked the bosses at Corus and Tata Steel with a persistent campaign to find a buyer for the beleaguered Teesside Cast Products plant. The Teesside plant has been in trouble for more than a year now and was mothballed in February 2010, leading to 1,700 job losses in the region that depends on the good fortunes of Corus for work and prosperity.

Baird’s campaign was loud and vociferous. So much so that the usually mellow Tata executives were forced to write to her and ask her to mellow her views. When Baird’s criticism reached its crescendo weeks before the election, Tata Steel Vice-chairman B Muthuraman finally shot a letter asking her to pipe down. In April, Muthuraman asked Baird not to be over-critical about the company’s strategy in dealing with problems in Corus.

He said her continued criticism of Corus was damaging the company’s efforts to find a strategic partner for Teesside.

“Continued criticism of the company and of Corus CEO and MD, Kirby Adams, in particular, was unfair and unwarranted.

Such criticism was unhelpful to the company and its workforce,” he had said.

Baird had been seeking a one-on-one meeting with the bosses at Tata Steel. She was in particular keen to secure this meeting before the election date. Her meeting with Muthuraman was scheduled for April 29, a week ahead of the elections. According to Baird, this was rescheduled to May 20 due to Muthuraman's "flight availability."

With the loss of her seat, it is not clear if she will still meet Muthuraman to discuss the future of Teesside. After losing the election, Baird said: “I am very disappointed but there is still work to be done. I don't think there is anything else I could have done in this campaign. The closure of Corus has had a massive effect on votes."

The big question that might never get answered is if the senior management in Tata Steel in Mumbai had its finger on the pulse of the British election and expected Baird to lose, which could be the reason for pushing a painful meeting to beyond the election date. The bigger question would be if Tata Steel will find a less troublesome and more reasonable negotiator in Baird’s successor.

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