Why the unions aren't rocking Blair's boat

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The Independent Online
IT WAS more like an American political convention than a traditional Labour Party conference. The young "suits" ceaselessly patrolled the aisles, headsets connecting them with the platform so that they could marshal the right speakers with the right image and the right opinions.

And it worked. Aides at John Smith House yesterday ransacked records going back decades and could find no precedent for a week-long party conference at which the platform won every vote. Next year, boasted a Walworth Road spin doctor, "there will be even more unanimity. The level of dissent will be negligible".

Labour as theatre used to be a gripping, nail-biting spectacle. For sheer ferocity, The War of the Worlds had nothing on the War of the Composite Resolutions. Not this year. One outraged delegate said it was "as exciting as a Walworth Road open day." Is the curtain coming down on a great pantomime tradition, on a par with the demise of the music-hall?

If Tony Blair has anything to do with it, yes. At a now notorious gathering in the Shadow Cabinet room at Westminster two weeks ago, he told a gaggle of union barons that he wanted "a good conference". He meant that they had to be good. In return, he promised that rights at work would be "an important element of the election campaign" in which they would be deeply involved. The two sides agreed on the need for "good advance communication" in the run-up to last week's conference.

This is Blairspeak for stitching up the votes in advance. Next it was the turn of the more unpredictable constituency delegates. On important issues, they were telephoned by a Walworth Road apparatchik. Sometimes more than once. You can imagine the conversations.

On the floor of the conference, the two-dozen young suits could not prevent "Red Roy" Hattersley from making his long-promised attack on grant- maintained schools, but the old-Labour Fire Brigades Union could not get to the rostrum all week, even though it was involved in two resolutions. About the only visible sign of union power was the commitment to "a publicly-owned railway, publicly accountable" which, when it was made in Tony Blair's speech, had Jimmy Knapp, leader of the RMT union, grinning and clapping in delight.

So is this the end for the hard left in the Labour party? Superfically, it looks as if it could be. The unions toed the line on the national minimum wage, on wider nationalisation of industry and on education. The Campaign Group, a left grouping of MPs and members, warned that the way is now open for "the modernisers' ultimate goal of a union-free Labour Party".

Closer examination suggests a different picture. Union leaders privately claim to have extracted a promise from Mr Blair that he will not diminish their voting strength (currently 50 per cent of the conference vote) before the end of the century.

In fact, Labour's relationship with the unions is changing, rather than disappearing. The unions are businesses, generating hundreds of millions of pounds turnover every year. After the political debacle of the Eighties and early Nineties, some of the smarter union bosses realised that tying their fortunes too closely to those of the party could be bad for business.

So, said one labour movement spin doctor: "Self-interest came to the fore. Instead of being utterly loyalist, we decided to be supportive - but independent. The public image is that Blair is cutting us out and we are prepared to go along with that. The truth is, we are happier with the policy commitments than we have been for years."

The trade unions' shopping list is steadily being ticked off : new labour laws giving a statutory right of recognition; abolition of the hated "check- off" laws that require union members to vote periodically on the automatic deduction of subscriptions from pay packets; the ending of compulsory competitive tendering in local authorities; full employment as "a goal of policy"; and a halt to the internal party modernisation.

But the Campaign Group predicts that "the main clash between the party's working-class base and the parliamentary leadership still lies in the future. The main battle for Labour's soul is still ahead of us". And there is little support for Arthur Scargill's threat to quit and form a new Socialist Labour Party. Campaign insists: "This is certainly not the time to think of leaving the party. Socialists must stay so that they are there when the unions finally call a halt to their retreat."

They may have a long wait. Bill Morris, leader of the Transport Workers, is decidely cautious. "I think this is an opportunity for the Left in British politics to start competing again in the battle of ideas. We don't need new structures. We need new ideas, and there is no point in constructing an agenda around 1979. We have to start from where we are. "

And just where that is was graphically illustrated on the Brighton fringe when Tony Blair addressed a Unison evening social. He confided: "When I sit in the House of Commons and see those Tories, I know why I am in the Labour Party, and I know why I want to win." A thick-set man standing behind him said in tones louder than a stage whisper: "A load of bollocks! Absolute bollocks!"

Alan Watkins, page 19

Neal Ascherson, page 20

Leading article, page 20