Expert View: Give the awkward squad some spin

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The Independent Online

The Prime Minister has had plenty of hostile audiences recently, but few can have equalled the assembled ranks of the trade unions last week. Perhaps it's not surprising that he chose to water down what was an originally hard-hitting speech, warning that the idea of a left-wing Labour government was "the abiding delusion of our party". Criticism of Mr Blair and his government has never been stronger from union quarters. Equally, the "awkward squad" has never felt closer to toppling him. In business terms, it is vital we do not see a return to Neanderthal union- ism. How can this be avoided?

Remember Gordon Brown? Our Chancellor has been remarkably quiet over the summer, particularly during the Hutton inquiry. That he was wheeled out in Brighton to deliver a pro-Blair, anti-old Labour speech (listened to in stony silence) illustrates just how serious the breakdown in relations between government and the trade unions is.

In part, this is a result of the rise of a new breed of leaders. The big four unions are said to have formed an anti-Blair war council, and there are rumours of a wider, more mysterious club - the New Labour Majority - that meets regularly in pubs and small hotels. This is a new generation of left-leaning leaders who see themselves as having been elected to defend the rights of public service workers.

They are increasingly open in their criticism of a government which, in the words of the RMT's Bob Crow, sees them as "a concrete necklace". There were direct calls last week for Mr Blair's resignation and, sadly, attacks on Labour as being pro-business.

This is very worrying for those of us in business, or with a grasp of basic economics. While the watering down of Mr Blair's speech was attacked as yet another example of spin, the reality is that the Government has done an awful lot for ordinary working people, but somehow fails to get this message across.

Apart from creating a healthy working environment with low unemployment, low inflation and low mortgage rates, this Government has done much for workers on the legislative front. Think of the minimum wage, improved maternity rights, progress on discrimination in the workplace. Indeed, even in the core area of criticism, the public services, there is far too little recognition of the biggest rises in health and education spending for nearly 60 years, or the fact that this Government has created 350,000 jobs in the public sector since 1998. Contrast these achievements with those of the previous administration.

And yet, in direct opposition to what the Prime Minister said, or nearly said, "sensible trade unions and most Labour Party members [do not] know this Government is doing its best for working people". In part, this is due to its obsession with issues like foundation hospitals, which very few people seem to be in favour of and many millions oppose. It is also not helped by some of the unseemly business donation scares, and by the Chancellor's sado-monetarist rhetoric.

The solution cannot be head-on attacks, as Mr Blair originally contemplated. It must be a dropping of some of the more contentious issues, better presentation of what has been achieved, and maybe some more obviously pro-worker policies. In pensions, for example, the Government has been painfully slow to respond to a massive shift of future liability on to workers - an effective pay cut. Employment rights related to new technologies have hardly been tackled, and the rise of temporary contracts left unaddressed.

Above all, the British work longer hours, with less security, than almost any other country in Europe. Mr Blair should worry about that.

christopher.walker@tiscali.co.uk

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