Dave Prentis: 'Raise them up, or they will bring you down'

The Unison leader's stark warning to Gordon Brown last week sounded like a return to the Seventies. Cole Moreton meets Dave Prentis
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The Independent Online

Suck on a Spangle, we're back in the Seventies. The cost of living is soaring. The economy is in deep trouble. So is the Government. There's even a petrol crisis. And here comes a bolshy trade union leader, warning the Prime Minister that his members are angry and ready to deliver a fatal blow. "You raise them up, Gordon, or they will bring you down!"

Those words were spoken by Dave Prentis of Unison, the second largest union in the country, at its annual conference last week. The delegates went wild. Such fighting talk is new from the general secretary, who represents 1.4 million men and women providing public services – from health managers and nurses through probation officers to dinner ladies.

Prentis is a Yorkshireman, but he is no Arthur Scargill. He has had differences with the Government before, but never set himself on such a collision course. This small and slim man looks casual enough for the conference floor but smart enough to meet with ministers. If they're still talking to him. "It may be frosty when I get back from here."

Nicknamed Mr Mainstream when he stepped up to lead Unison eight years ago, Prentis was one of the new breed of union leaders prepared to adapt to life under Tony Blair. But not under Gordon Brown, it seems. Not now the hard times are here. "Our members are worried about how they are going to pay the mortgage or the rent, the gas or electricity, and how they are going to feed their children," he says. "They have had enough. I cannot ignore that."

Tomorrow, Prentis will find out whether 600,000 local government workers are willing to strike for a better deal than the 2.4 per cent rise on offer. The ballot is secret, but the language Prentis is using suggests he is confident they'll say yes. He is also involved in disputes at Ofsted, among meat hygiene inspectors and in the probation service. Then there are the 800,000 NHS workers who became subject to a new agreement at Easter. Soaring inflation is already rendering it obsolete, says Prentis, and if it continues he will fight for a new deal.

"I'm not threatening a summer of discontent," he insists. "I'm saying the feeling out there is one of pure anger."

Strikes are not his main threat. "Our members are not like tanker drivers who can hold the nation to ransom. We care for the vulnerable in society." So how does he think they could bring the Prime Minister down? "If there is still so much anger and worry among public service workers when an election comes, they will show their discontent at the ballot box."

This is serious. Unison has just published a Mori poll showing that nearly half of traditional Labour voters are less likely to back the party next time. Some say the Conservatives look more competent. "If Gordon loses people like my members," says Prentis, "Labour has no chance."

So the 58-year-old party member believes he is firing "a warning shot" across the leader's bows. He is doing it on behalf of public service workers who have had their pay kept below inflation.

"Times are tough," admitted the Chancellor, Alistair Darling, in his Mansion House speech. Comparisons with the Seventies are a bit silly, of course – as the Chancellor pointed out, inflation reached 26 per cent back then. But he added: "We must never return to those days." One way of avoiding it was "continued restraint on pay".

That is unfair, says Prentis, if it does not apply to everyone. "Wealthy people are allowed to do whatever they want, out of fear that they will leave the country, so the brunt of the economic turbulence will be borne by working-class people. We have to let the Government know that what it is doing is wrong."

We are talking at the Bournemouth International Centre, in one of the bars that have been closed and deserted all week. It's not like the old days – "they used to have trouble getting people to come in for the votes" – but far away in Westminster, opponents are calling Dave Prentis a dinosaur. The Conservatives have promised to give the unions a thrashing again, if they start behaving like they did in 1979.

"They are stuck in the past themselves, those people," he says in a clipped, tense voice that gets more Leeds the more his irritation rises. "We're not banging the table. We don't want to run the country. But when food is going up in the way it is, plus electricity, gas, petrol all going up 30 or 40 per cent, these are the basics of life. Tax-evasion by the rich amounts to £37bn and nobody says anything. And we've got to pay the price, show restraint? People earning just above the minimum wage?"

Not him, of course. He's on a basic salary of £89,000. "I've never had a pay rise that was not applied to the rest of the staff." Dave – not David – Prentis definitely sees himself as a man of his people. "I do get a kick out of our membership," he says. "I love them. I love being with them. I'd spend every minute of the waking day with them."

That, says his director of policy, Liz Snape, who has been sitting in on our conversation, "is because you've got a million women." Prentis laughs. "That does help!" They exchange knowing smiles, like lovers do. This is not inappropriate, it turns out: they have been partners for 21 years, live together in north London and have two daughters. Prentis went public a few years ago after fighting off cancer of the oesophagus and stomach, not to mention MRSA contracted in hospital. "The cleaning service was contracted out to a private firm. [The ward] was filthy." But apart from that he has been reluctant to talk about his private life. "I avoid it like the plague."

Not that it sounds much fun, to be honest. "This job is a way of life, from when you wake up in the morning to when you go to bed. Then you wake up at three in the morning and you do some more." Most of his friends are trade unionists, he says. They talk about the struggle, mostly. "That's how it should be."

That's how it has always been for him, since he was a child in Leeds. "We've still got the trestles my dad used as a decorator. In the winter, if there was no work coming in, we would wonder what would happen in the spring. We still live in that divided society now."

Thanks to a Catholic education he was "probably the only boy within a radius of a mile to get to grammar school." Did the posh boys have a go at him? "No," he says. "I got on with them very well. Still do. But you've got to have an essence, and mine was in standing up for my background." He sounds like an intense boy with unusual passions. "Throughout the teenage years, probably my only interest was in working-class movements, working-class history." A trade union official told him to "get the hell out of here and go to university". What would he have done otherwise? "Probably worked at Burtons, in a tailoring factory."

After reading history at the University of London and economic history at the LSE, he took a master's in industrial relations at Warwick. Did he feel adrift, as so many grammar school boys did, between his working-class roots and his middle-class friends? "Probably the only problem I had was my broad Leeds accent. I was hauled in at school. They said, 'Look, if you've got these beliefs, for God's sake learn to speak properly.' I told them to push off."

He rose through the ranks at Nalgo, during the Thatcher conflict and the wilderness years that followed, before playing a leading part in the creation of Unison in 1993. He's never had a proper job, has he? "No," he says happily. "This isn't a proper job. I'd do it for nothing. I run an enormous organisation with an income of £162m. I've got staffing policies covering 1,500 employees all over the country. I deal with chief executives ... Oh!" He has remembered an outside interest. "Ardent Leeds United fan. But we do go to see Arsenal because it's nice to see a winning team occasionally."

Typical pragmatism, some would say, from a trade unionist who adapted to New Labour. "We did accept change, many times. We needed resources for schools and hospitals that had been run down under the Tories. Now we are saying, very strongly, that the privatisation agenda is wrong. It has to stop."

Isn't it risky for a lifelong socialist to confront a Labour government when it is already in serious trouble? "Yes." Does he really want to let David Cameron in? "No. Absolutely not." So what on earth is he up to? "We are saying to Gordon, as critical friends, not enemies, 'You've got to listen to what your core supporters are saying and deal with it now.' We don't want him to feel our pain. We want him to stand up for us."

And if he doesn't? "When my members alone are being subject to a pay policy which is iniquitous, there is no way that I, as general secretary, can ignore that." Is that the sound of the Seventies? Is it the voice of a prophet calling his party to rediscover its soul? Is it the cry of a moderate dismayed at being forced to fight? That depends on your politics. But there is no mistaking the hubris. "I am," says Dave Prentis, "the voice of 1.4 million people."