Mark Leftly: David Cameron walks the walk but he needs to talk the talk with unions


Click to follow

Westminster Outlook Perhaps it was because he opted out of drinking with his advisers at the almost perfectly named Lefty’s, an old-time music hall in Brisbane, in the early hours of Sunday morning, but it was quite remarkable how fresh-faced David Cameron appeared on his return to the House of Commons.

Straight off the plane from an action-packed G20 summit Down Under – where he had admonished Vladimir Putin over Ukraine, criticised others for failing in their aid duties over the ebola crisis in West Africa, and transformed his intellectual bond with the deficit-cutting Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott into a fully fledged bromance – there he was on Monday telling the Commons that Britain would not be “cowed” by terrorists.

Having followed him on a four-day whistle-stop tour of Sydney, Canberra and Brisbane with an initially gnarled press pack who returned exhausted and toothless, I can tell you that’s impressive proof of our PM’s steel-like resilience.

A shame, then, that Mr Cameron couldn’t have found 20 minutes in his Brisbane diary to meet trade union chiefs. Aspiring to the top rank of world leaders, Mr Cameron instead joined the likes of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, a nation whose oil wealth has been buttressed by cheap foreign labour, and President Widodo of Indonesia, a nation notorious for its poor workers’ rights, in snubbing the unions.

Yet the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a centre-right politician if ever there was one, even treated union leaders from the G20 members, whose cumulative wealth accounts for 85.9 per cent of the world economy, to a breakfast of bread, fruit and tea.

No wonder Frances O’Grady, general secretary of our own TUC, found herself describing “Mutti”, as she is known in Germany, as “a breath of fresh air”.

Those union leaders were there to make sure that the G20 committed itself to improving the “quality” of jobs – meaning, for example, a crackdown on zero-hours work within those member countries and the EU. What’s more, they got what they were after in the very first sentence of the three-page communiqué that ended the summit – “better living standards and quality jobs across the world is our highest priority” – as well as whole passages dedicated to addressing poverty and inequality.

In snubbing the TUC in front of its peers, Mr Cameron succeeded in embarrassing Britain’s union movement. He might regard this as well deserved given the number of industrial relations disputes that have taken place as he has tried to tackle the deficit through spending cuts.

This is also a signal of how the Conservatives will fight the general election: no apologies, no backtracking from an age of austerity that they believe had to be imposed if Britain were to recover from the gravest financial crisis since the Wall Street crash.

Since 2010, the trade unions have fought the Government and big businesses that desperately needed to restructure – from the walkout by 1 million public sector workers in July to strike ballots at EDF, Ineos and Ford.

The PM might not want anything to do with a movement that he believes has fought the reforms he felt necessary for workers to keep their jobs, but Mr Cameron was wrong to snub the unions.

Like it or not, antiquated and needlessly confrontational as he might see them, and after more than 30 years of governments reducing their power, unions remain fundamental to British business and the economy.

If Mr Cameron does grab the outright majority that his self-assured demeanour and forceful walk suggests he is convinced of, he will have to work with unions to smooth through further reforms, be they further outsourcing of public services or a privatisation programme.

After years of economic misery, there would be little point causing fresh wounds, on top of the economic scars, with a series of new industrial rows.

At the very least, it must at least be worth having a quick chat over toast and orange juice to keep them sweet.