Election '97: TUC chief warns unions over unrealistic demands

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John Monks, the TUC general secretary, yesterday warned trade union leaders meeting in Glasgow not contribute to the "crude caricatures" painted of them by making unrealistic demands of a Labour government.

Though some of the rhetoric at the Scottish Trades Union Congress remained hardline, with a reminder to Tony Blair that banners would not be packed away, a potentially embarrassing motion on public spending on yesterday's agenda was watered down and further retreats could follow.

But no amount of gritted teeth moderation could stop Ian Lang, President of the Board of Trade, exploiting the occasion with a charge that "Labour and the unions are joined at the hip and at the wallet". Since 1979, the unions had contributed pounds 100m to the Labour Party and still controlled 50 per cent of the votes at its policy-making conference, he said.

"It is clear beyond doubt that the trade unions today are as dangerous as they ever were," he said, claiming that just 17 of the motions at the conference would cost the British taxpayer pounds 12bn.

A direct challenge to the commitment by Gordon Brown, the shadow Chancellor, to adhere to Tory public spending totals fell by the way side. It appeared on the final agenda as a call to oppose any freeze on public sector pay and to lobby MPs on the "necessity for their support for adequate funding" for public services.

But hardline rhetoric remained. David Bleiman, of the Association of University Teachers (Scotland), said the Government's spending plans left public services facing "appalling prospects" in 1998 and 1999.

"If the money in the Tory spending plans isn't enough to save our public services from devastation no one expects us to pack up our banners and go home," Mr Bleiman said. "We haven't done that in 18 years of Tory government and we won't do that if there are 18 years of Labour government."

Ken Cameron, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, raised a laugh from the 500 delegates with a denial that a motion opposing privatisation of public services was designed to embarrass the Labour leadership. "This is not the case - because when we submitted the motion it was Labour Party policy," he said.

However, Mr Monks issued a veiled caution to the Labour leader against any backtracking on commitments to a minimum wage and rights to trade union representation. These were no favours to one interest group, but the "hallmarks of a decent society," he said.

Mr Monks told the conference there was a big difference between passing a resolution and persuading an employer or a government that it was the right thing to do. "The way that unions have been portrayed during this election has been grossly unfair, but we should not contribute to the crude caricatures," he warned.

In a pre-emptive strike, David Blunkett, Labour's education spokesman, said nothing said or passed at the conference would affect policies already set before the electorate.