Brendan Barber: A bluster-free zone amid the political sound and fury and the ruin of Rover

The head of the TUC has a streak of idealism but the touch of a diplomat in dealing with burning issues, as he explains to Abigail Townsend
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The Independent Online

There are two sides to Brendan Barber, general secretary of the TUC. On one hand, as is to be expected from the head of the UK's most powerful workers' organisation - the TUC has a membership of 67 unions and well over six million people - he is the epitome of a union man. A working-class grammar-school boy who started off as president of his university's student union. Someone who is true to his roots: an avid Evertonian, he looks remarkably fresh-faced despite a 2am return from watching his team beat Manchester United ("a cheerful night", as Barber puts it with a glint in his eye). And a man passionate about the movement and the workers it serves.

But to write him off as a stereotype, full of bluster and old-fashioned principles, would be wrong. For, on the other hand, he can discuss emotive subjects yet manoeuvre through minefields with the skill of a politician. Put it to him that he is more diplomat than union man and you get a wry laugh that smacks of agreement.

Eventually, though, Barber will have to come down from the fence, particularly on Europe. The TUC will not decide its stance on a European constitution until September's congress, the body's annual policy-setting event, but Barber does give perhaps the clearest indication yet of which way the organisation will jump.

Britain is at risk of ending up "isolated" through a "no" vote, he warns, adding: "We may be in a different position if there was a negative vote in France. But if there's a positive vote, are we looking at being the only major state that votes no? Then the Government will step up their campaign for a 'yes' vote after the election, the momentum will start building and it will be right for us to take a stance."

He points to the other advantages of backing the constitution, such as future Tory governments being unable to overturn hard-fought benefits such as the minimum wage. He talks about Europe needing "a strong platform for citizens and workers" and concedes that, ever since former European Commission president Jacques Delors won over a sceptical movement in the late 1980s, unions have tended to be broadly pro-Europe. The TUC also supports entry to the euro, as long as Gordon Brown's tests are met.

The TUC is, by its nature, a Labour-supporting beast, but that does not stop Barber criticising the Government. The decline of manufacturing is his current bête noire, a situation thrown into the spotlight by the collapse of MG Rover.

"If we go back a quarter of a century, seven million people worked in manufacturing. Now we're nearly at the three million mark. For a long period, we didn't have a national strategy. We didn't have a clear view about the level of investment needed to keep manufacturing competitive in the face of global competition."

He concedes that this is a state of affairs witnessed around the world but says the UK, which lost 100,000 manufacturing jobs last year alone, has suffered a greater rate of decline.

"We need a vibrant manufacturing sector. The economy would be desperately unbalanced if everyone could earn a living by serving each other in the hospitality or financial services industries. The other major economies still maintain significant sectors. It would be wrong just to completely write it off."

Yet he does not believe that the Government made the wrong decision five years ago when it backed Phoenix's controversial bid for Rover over Jon Moulton's rival proposal. The Alchemy deal would have meant 4,500 redundancies, but should have ensured 2,000 jobs were safe and that the brand survived.

"The judgement call was that if an appropriate partnership could be found, Longbridge could have been maintained as a volume car manufacturer. The exact rights and wrongs about how the top management behaved in the period since do need to be looked at.

"But the Alchemy proposal would have resulted in a large loss of jobs. It was a reasonable and fair judgement at the time."

The other issue of the moment is pensions. A few years ago, the mere mention of the word could clear the annual congress. "People would use the opportunity to go for their tea break. But that's no longer the case. It's one of the biggest issues because of the looming sense of crisis. The biggest factor driving the concern has been the reduced level of employer contributions to pensions."

Most employers also cut their contributions when moving from final salary schemes to the now- preferred defined contributions system - from an average of some 10 per cent to around 4 or 5 per cent, he argues. "The consequence is that there is going to be less pensions."

At 54, his own retirement is some way off. He says it was "a streak of idealism" that led him to a career in the movement - that he was "struck by the idea you could make a difference". His family has no history of union activism, though he did grow up in a young offender's institution. He allows for the briefest of pauses after dropping that bombshell, before explaining that his father taught bricklaying at an "approved school", as they were then known, and the family had a house in the grounds.

He lives now with his wife and daughters in Muswell Hill, a comfortable part of north London. Yet it would be a mistake to see only the middle-class Barber, because you would miss the full picture. Glimpses occasionally shine through. He praises Gordon Brown's policies and the diplomat in him refuses to be drawn on whether he would make a better prime minister. But he still sounds angry, for example, when he talks about Margaret Thatcher.

"It was a long, difficult period. Our basic legitimacy was being called into question. The biggest example of her hostility was the GCHQ union ban. To be in a union was incompatible with national security and loyalty. It was somehow unpatriotic. Inevitably it affected the trade union movement."

With Tory rule now a distant memory, Barber is dedicated to developing a "powerful union role". Primarily, this will be achieved through boosting membership. But he also believes in unions merging, arguing that deals work well in the right situation, cutting competition and releasing resources. He is keen on closer co-operation with overseas unions, and argues that unions have a growing voice in the City, particularly when it comes to campaigning for better corporate governance and more transparency.

In other words, get past Barber's softer, diplomatic side, and it is the union hard man, of the most traditional form, which is at his core.

That is not to borrow from the right-wing press and call him a militant - just a man who remains committed to the streak of idealism that got him where he is now.


Born: 3 April 1951.

Education: BA Honours in social sciences, City University.

Career (1974): researcher at the Ceramics, Glass and Mineral Products Industry Training Board.

1975: policy officer for training issues at the TUC.

1976: assistant secretary, organisation and industrial relations department.

1979: head of press and information.

1987: head of organisation and industrial relations department.

1993: deputy general secretary to John Monks.

2003 to now: general secretary.

Other posts: non-executive director of the Court of the Bank of England.