My biggest mistake

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The Independent Online
I reckon I've made a couple of mistakes in my political and professional life. But which of them is the biggest is difficult to say. Perhaps it's best to start off with the one from which I learned the most fundamental lesson - and where the consequences were positive rather than negative.

Back in 1965, I fought a by-election for Labour in the staunch Tory constituency of Salisbury. There was a lot of Ministry of Defence stuff in South Wilts, and I spent the last night of what was a gruelling campaign addressing a meeting on the attitude of the Labour government to the defence industries.

It was a packed meeting of several hundred people, including a number of crusty old Tories who did their damnedest to trip me up.

When I emerged, rather shattered, from the meeting, a young girl came up to me and said: 'I thought your speech was the most negative I've ever heard.'

I prickled and asked her how old she was. 'Seventeen,' she replied. I snapped back at her: 'Your opinion doesn't matter. You're too young to vote.'

I had no sooner said it than I wished I hadn't. It was rude and arrogant, and if somebody had said it to me, I would have been mortified.

I've never forgotten that encounter and it taught me a lesson which I've sought to apply in my 32 years as an official of BIFU. However obtuse some people may appear to be, they have a perfect right to put their point of view. I have learned to bite back the sharp-tongued retort, whatever the provocation.

The by-election incident came to mind when I was a member of the armed forces pay review body in the 1980s. Some of the lads in the forces whom I interviewed from time to time may have been inarticulate, but they could express themselves robustly. During a trip to Cyprus to hear their views on pay and conditions, an army private suddenly snapped at me: 'How much do you earn? How many hours in the week do you work?'

My minders, who included civil servants and regimental officers, including the Colonel, were taken aback, even horrified. But with my by-election gaffe still deeply etched in my psyche, I had no hesitation in telling him.

My other big mistake occurred 15 years ago, during difficult negotiations over pay with the chairman of the Federation of London Clearing Bank Employers. Having found out that we were having private talks with the Lloyds Bank Staff Association, with a view to a merger, he threatened he would make sure the talks failed unless we accepted the banks' pay offer. As it was highly important to BIFU that these talks succeeded, we backed off. But they failed anyway.

Although I was faced with a dilemma, I should have insisted on continuing the pay talks and dared the banks to do their worst. For at the end of the day, my function is to get the best deal for the people who pay my salary.

Not that our relations with the banks are bad, though there are a few exceptions. We may see things from a different perspective, but we still do business.

However, we face a testing time in our relations because of the huge redundancies being threatened by the clearing banks.

Leif Mills, 56, is general secretary of the 160,000-member Banking, Insurance and Finance Union. He graduated from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1957. After his National Service in the Royal Military Police as a second lieutenant, and a year as a graduate trainee with the old London County Council, he joined the union in 1960 as research officer and has served it for the past 22 years. He was elected to the job of general secretary in 1972. A senior member of the TUC General Council, he also served on the Monopolies and Mergers Commission from 1980 until 1991.

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