Leading Article: Stop the ranting and remember your role, brothers

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WHAT ARE the trade unions for? This is a question that too few of us have given much thought to in recent times. Most of us are content to answer the question by beading together words such as "irrelevant", "outdated" and, of course, "dinosaur" (itself now a rather dated expression). More to the point, too many trade unionists, sadly, have been happy to dismiss such fundamental questions about their role as just so much navel gazing. Neither of these responses are adequate. It is not too strong to say that independent trade unions play a vital part in a free society. If they are to thrive it is because they have found a convincing way to say to potential members: "This is what we are for, this is what we can do for you."

We have witnessed at Blackpool this week both a glimpse of a modern brand of popular trade unionism and some signals that thoughtfulness is still at a premium in the Labour movement. The brothers must have enjoyed grabbing the headlines for a change. But the messages that emanated from Blackpool were not uniformly attractive.

Trade unionists were entitled, for example, to use their public platform to press for changes in legislation and social and economic policy. They put their case for an increase in the minimum wage passionately. They argued for a cut in interest rates. Some of them regretted the passing of interest rate policy to the Bank of England. Yet they listened to the Governor of the Bank of England, who is, after all, a hard-working public servant (though not yet a Unison member), with respect. This is in marked contrast to, say, the heckling that Denis Healey, a Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer, famously received when he begged the unions to help the then Government during the IMF crisis in 1976.

The case for a shift in policy today is made without menaces and without the trappings and contradictions and pretensions of corporatism. The unions are just another lobby group and their success depends on the effectiveness of the case they put. It is not a rude or demeaning position for the unions to be in that places them, in this respect, on a par with the AA or the RSPCA or Greenpeace (all organisations with sizeable memberships). It is rather to recognise their new role. To employ a new union cliche, the unions are right to settle for fairness and not favours from the Government. Much of this change in the unions' attitudes is down to the quiet but effective leadership of John Monks.

This, though was in contrast to the intemperate attacks on "fat cats" (or "greedy bastards") made by John Edmonds. Such name calling was not a useful contribution to public policy, crowd-pleasing and headline-grabbing though it may have been. It did suggest to people outside the Conference hall that trade unions are still about envy, vindictiveness, even greed - but on their own part. But the railing at the hate-figures will not bring GMB members any more rights, any more pay, any more security. Mr Edmonds and his colleagues would do better to concentrate on the real enemies that their members - and potential members - encounter daily in the workplace. Too few trade unions provide tangible benefits for their individual members to tackle problems such as "bastard" bosses. Above all else, unions should be able to say to potential recruits: "we may or may not gain recognition in your workplace. Maybe people don't want collective bargaining. But even if we don't get recognition and you are on an individual contract, we will give you advice if you find yourself being bullied or discriminated against". Unions such as the AEU are showing how they can help their members find suitable pensions. Such practical measures as these represent a far more convincing answer to the question of what the unions are for.