Behind the bluster, Labour has quietly tamed the unions

The unions are not used to dealing with ministers they trust or, indeed, dealing with ministers at all
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The Independent Culture
DON'T BE fooled by the headlines. As journalists, we head for conferences looking for spats, and because there are many genuine differences of policy between unions and the Government, we found them this week. It was no exaggeration to say that they were at loggerheads over the economy. John Edmonds knew he would get on the front pages by talking about the "greedy bastards". It reflected a good piece of political theatre to suggest that Peter Mandelson and Eddie George had entered the "lion's den" when they spoke here.

But the juicy quotes and the theatrical imagery hide a much bigger story. For the unions have changed far more than is implied by headlines, reminiscent of those which screamed across the front pages 20 years ago.

The unions are defensive, as if still repenting for past misdeeds, subdued, confused, uncertain of their role, grateful for any crumbs from the ministerial table, willing to consider new roles for themselves and new economic ideas. Or, as John Edmonds put it to me in a New Statesman interview, after 18 years of Conservative government they are more humble. This is true even of Edmonds himself.

Indeed, I would suggest that the GMB General Secretary personifies the change rather well. Sure, he disagrees with the Government; yes, in my interview with him he raised the spectre of industrial action, warning that "accumulated grievances" over public sector pay could lead to strikes. But when I saw him in Blackpool, I got the impression he regretted his relatively moderate stridency. His original words jarred with the continuing goodwill that is felt towards the Labour government, and an instinct that union leaders do not want to say or do anything which could jeopardise its continuing existence. Take another example.

When John Prescott spoke, earlier this week, his words matched the spin from the days before, a rare occurrence with this government. He delivered a blunt message on the Government's determination not to change course on the economy. To me, he also appeared tired and less engaged with his audience than he can be on such occasions, more Deputy Prime Minister burdened by government than the man coming home to his natural constituency. But the union leaders loved it, or said they did, which at the very least shows how polite they have become.

In a BBC interview, Roger Lyons, General Secretary of the MFS, and one of the biggest critics of the Government's economic policy, told me afterwards that he would like to send the speech to all his members, it was so good. The reason? Prescott had said that unions had the right to disagree with the Government. At the moment, that is the limit of their expectations - to be part of a dialogue in which ministers respect their right to dissent.

Let us move away from the economy to a specific, and potentially explosive, issue: teacher's pay and the related recruitment crisis in schools.

I watched David Blunkett's speech at the conference while sitting next to the General Secretary of the NUT, Doug McCavoy. He poured praise on Blunkett: the policies were making a difference in schools. Teachers recognised that he was trying his best to get more money from the Treasury. Blunkett himself was evidently so committed to the brief. What a contrast, he observed, from the previous 18 years. That, of course, is the point, and the context, of what I take to be a significant change in the attitude of the main unions. After being ignored and rendered powerless by Thatcherism, just about anything else is seen as an improvement, worthy of rejoicing. But it is more than that.

An understated element of New Labour politics is the pivotal role played by politicians who are not necessarily part of the inner Blairite circle. It has become a cliche to suggest that only a few people matter in this government - I have used it myself plenty of times. Derek Draper is not alone. I now think this is wrong.

Blair has been extremely astute in placing politicians in the right places who will deliver for him, but command genuine respect from trade unionists. Prescott is always cited as one such example. But Blunkett is another.

Ian McCartney, at the DTI, is also a pivotal figure. He spent virtually the entire week at the conference, which is fairly remarkable for a minister with a demanding schedule. In his ill-fitting shirts and trousers, he looked as far removed as it can possibly be from a pristine New Labour model, but he is not by any stretch of the imagination a figure from the past. He evangelises on the need for social partnership and stresses his ties with business as much as with the unions. He jokes that he, and his always immaculately turned-out boss, Peter Mandelson, are seen as The Odd Couple, but the two work well together. His importance, though, in this week's context is that trade union leaders trust and rate him. After the Conservatives, they are not used to dealing with any ministers whom they trust and rate. In fact, they are not used to dealing with any ministers at all.

Senior ministers have been annoyed to hear denunciations of their economic policies, without being offered a detailed alternative. It is a fair point. Throughout the week, I have asked union leaders whether they really think it would be wise, for example, for the Government to break a pledge on taxation.

My impression is that they do recognise the disastrous consequences of such a U-turn. Before Eddie George addressed them on Tuesday, John Monks stressed the need for them to offer detailed, workable policies of their own, not just to denounce the Government's approach. There are real opportunities here, for I detect no enthusiasm whatsoever for conflict with this government. Indeed, I detect the reverse. There is a desire to grab at any opportunity to praise. This means that the unions will do everything possible to avoid outbreaks of industrial action, however unhappy they are with government policy. As Denis Healey observed, Tony Blair is a more fortunate Prime Minister than any of his predecessors - he is facing a union movement he can do business with.

But that, in itself, demands a responsible response from ministers. It is easier than it has ever been to ignore the unions, or view them with disdain. But they still represent a substantial slice of the population, and seem to be determined to limit themselves to that role. There was no grand posturing on wider political questions in Blackpool.

The unions have not made statements even on welfare reform, which is one of the big political issues. What a contrast to the era when the political world held its breath, as it awaited their latest declaration on unilateral nuclear disarmament. So when they put their cases on public sector pay and recruitment, or the impact of high interest rates, they do so with genuine feeling and with some regret: they do not want to take on this government.

At the very least, they deserve to be listened to very seriously. If Mandelson had spent the full week in Blackpool, he would have known warnings about the Government not being a "soft touch" were superfluous. Neither he, nor Eddie George, entered a lion's den this week. If the Blackpool conference was a den, it was stuffed full of tame animals.

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