Yesterday, in a high-risk speech offering little compromise, Mr Hunt, Secretary of State for Employment, told his 400-strong audience at Congress House that their historic relationship was now 'discredited'. Unions should abandon their role as institutions of 'opposition', he said.
The speech attracted mutterings of disapproval, but there was no sustained heckling and the minister resumed his seat to polite, if short-lived, applause.
Dennis Skinner, MP for Bolsover, and Arthur Scargill were among left-wing demonstrators who left before Mr Hunt's arrival.
The Secretary of State told a mixture of trade unionists and employment specialists that unions had a future as partners in the workplace, but not as organisations with political power on the national stage. There would be no going back to the corporatist 'bad old days', Mr Hunt added.
The speech was largely a restatement of Tory policy - a prospective party chairman was unlikely to use a TUC-sponsored meeting to announce new measures. However, his text was larded with the language of dialogue and partnership, and contained a more overt commitment to high employment levels than would be expected from more Thatcherite colleagues.
Later, at a TUC buffet lunch, he said that full employment was a goal he and John Major shared with the labour movement. He told journalists: 'It was a very positive and constructive atmosphere and I welcome the opportunity to respond to some of the challenges made. The TUC will not be able to agree with all I have said, but the important thing is that we are talking. People should not expect us to agree on some key areas of
In his speech, Mr Hunt said that the creation of full employment would have to go hand in hand with the need for greater competitiveness. The Government had no 'magic potion'. Mr Hunt set out five steps for tackling unemployment: keeping inflation low; encouraging enterprise and self-employment; investing in training and education; helping the jobless back to work; and striking a balance between the rights of the unemployed and those in work.
John Monks, TUC general secretary, has come under fire from the Transport and General Workers' Union and the GMB general union for inviting Mr Hunt, but he said: 'We can only benefit from discussing and debating these things and trying to eke out common ground.'
Howard Davies, director general of the CBI, who was also at the meeting, said that a dialogue between the Government, employers and unions was more than gesture politics and had 'positive value'.
Leading article, page 15