Labour's trade-union time bomb

The big unions that once brought Britain to a halt are lying low. But for how long?
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It has been an extraordinary exercise in political discipline. For the past two years or more, trade-union leaders have witnessed with mounting anger the Labour Party change from a democratic socialist organisation to a social democratic one. An "SDP Mark Two".

With little more than a middle-aged hurrumph, the union "barons" have allowed Tony Blair to take the party by the scruff of the neck and shake it free of socialism. That would be fine but for the fact that it was the unions, many of which still harbour an unfashionable yearning for socialism, which established the Labour Party in 1906 and continue to be its biggest benefactor. The provenance of the party and the financial link with unions is not something that Blair cares to acknowledge, and it will certainly not be part of the sales pitch to the electorate.

In the words of one senior figure in the movement, the party is behaving like the proverbial teenager towards his parents: "You can drive me to the disco, pay for my booze, but park round the corner so my mates can't see you."

For the most part, union leaders have acquiesced in this demeaning role. The labour movement panjandrums, all essentially politicians, have remained uncharacteristically quiet - in public at least. They have kept their distance as Blair has paraded new Labour as the party of business and low taxation - as he did on Wednesday at a pounds 470-a-ticket London conference. It was meant for senior company directors, but half the delegates were from PR firms.

Despite high-profile donations from elsewhere, union affiliates contend that they contribute around two-thirds of the money that flows into party coffers. And the unions have "delivered" for Blair and his allies. Not only have they kept the money rolling in, they have voted - sometimes against their instinctive judgement - for fundamental changes in policy. They have kept the movement's great unwashed at bay.

Next week at the TUC Congress in Blackpool, union leaders will continue to do the leader's bidding by ameliorating the call for a minimum wage of pounds 4.26 an hour. Blair, who will be dining with the TUC's general council next Wednesday, has indicated that TUC commitment to any figure would be unhelpful. Unions bosses are ready to do mental cartwheels over their own policies to oblige.

The unions' most important "gift" to Blair to date was their help in the abolition last year of Clause IV of the party's constitution, which called for wholesale nationalisation.

The continued acquiescence of unions is all the more remarkable for the fact that Blair does not necessarily regard them as "The Voice of Working People" and therefore as major players in policy formation.

It was not always thus. Under the prime ministers Wilson and Callaghan, union leaders were habitues of the corridors of power and all the most senior officials had direct and constant contact with Cabinet ministers. This was the famous (to some people infamous) era of "beer and sandwiches at 10 Downing Street", where the Government struck deals with union leaders.

So powerful were the unions pre-Thatcher that in 1974 Edward Heath, the then Tory Prime Minister, called a general election to decide "who rules: government or unions?". The poll, in which he lost, came after a miners' strike that reduced the whole of industry to a three-day week to save power. In 1979 came the so-called Winter of Discontent, during which around a fifth of the working population either took industrial action or were laid off because of it.

How times change. Now, despite the Royal Mail and rail disputes, strikes are at a historic low and in Blair's eyes unions are simply one among many special interest groups. Even three years ago unions would not have tolerated such a role.

After 17 years of Tory government, they are prepared to roll on their backs and have their political tummies tickled. The Labour leader simply does not listen to the party's big affiliates unless they are addressing matters of direct union business.

Blair's predecessors would have taken on board the musings of teaching unions on the national curriculum or pupil discipline. Blair will develop his own policies, advised by his own hand-picked experts. Unions will have an input, but no more than academics and parents' groups - some would say considerably less.

But clearly for the unions the game is still worth the candle. There is an unspoken accord. Crudely put, union leaders have given Blair what he wants - they still command half the votes in policy-making conferences - in exchange for very specific promises. There is a shopping list, and promises from the Labour leadership that purchases will be made.

Top of that list is the repeal of a seemingly innocuous, rather technical, but critical piece of legislation, passed in 1993. This obliges union members to authorise the deduction of union subscriptions from their wages every three years. It means that unions have to keep "re-recruiting" their six million members and notifying all individuals about any change in fees. It is rather like banks having to keep signing up all their customers every few years. The law hits at the unions' lifelines. They believe that repeal is essential for their survival.

The second most important item is a concession from Blair on union recognition. Where half or more of employees vote for a union to conduct collective bargaining on their behalf, then employers would be forced to deal with it. Also on the shopping list is a pledge to sign up to the Social Chapter of the Maastricht treaty. Finally, the unions will be calling in Labour pledges on minimum wages to be determined by a low pay commission representing both management and unions.

The Labour leadership has sorely tested the self-discipline of unions by progressively watering down its side of the bargain. Considerable swathes of Conservative legislation are to be kept and there is to be no fundamental review of employment law. A long-standing promise to liberalise the laws on secondary industrial action, for instance, has been dropped from Labour's latest policy documents. Union bosses kept their own counsel on their misgivings about the change, but the fury, especially on the left, was real enough.

Both the party and the unions kept quiet about the secretive talks during which their unspoken deal was struck.

There is little public contact between Labour and the unions outside the party's national executive committee and at the annual conference. But there are regular meetings between senior union officials and the party leadership in forums which are rarely, if ever, acknowledged. There is the "contact group" where Blair and his deputy, John Prescott, meet senior representatives of the TUC and and there is the Trade Union Liaison Office, where those unions that are affiliated to the party meet the leadership.

Through these channels, union bosses have been keeping a fatherly eye on the health of their accord with Blair and airing their disagreements in private. Here also, the Labour leader meets people with whom he has little in common.

Blair regards Rodney Bickerstaffe, general secretary of the big white- collar union Unison, with suspicion; Bill Morris of the Transport and General Workers' Union as unreliable; and John Edmonds, leader of the GMB, as too clever by half.

In these meetings, the union leaders have warned Blair that it may well be a game of two halves and that there may be trouble ahead. Although Labour has been reassured of union good behaviour ahead of any election, there is a different consideration about life after a Blair victory.

Blair has been told by union leaders that workers' aspirations under a Labour government might be difficult to control. Union leaders can manipulate their troops to support motions at conferences, but the attitude of the British workforce to their pay and conditions is quite another matter.

While Blair has been keen to keep a lid on expectations in virtually every speech he makes, unions have told him that their members may see things differently. At its most basic, their argument is that if working people vote Labour it will be because they believe a Blair government will change the economic atmosphere to allow a few more pounds to trickle into their pockets.

Evidence of rising expectations and growing industrial militancy has surfaced at London Underground, in the rail network and the Royal Mail. In the latter dispute, Alan Johnson, joint general secretary of the Communication Workers' Union and one of the strongest supporters of Blair in the union movement, has conspicuously failed to keep his troops in order. Johnson has been decidedly unhappy that his members have chosen the run-up to the election to flex their industrial muscles. Blair has indicated publicly that the union should ballot its members on the latest Royal Mail peace formula. So far, neither Blair nor Johnson have been successful in persuading postal workers to behave themselves. That could well be a harbinger of things to come.

The biggest battleground will be the public sector, where the Tories have frozen wages for the past three years and where union organisation is at its strongest. If Major holds off the election until next April, the public-sector pay round will in effect be over by the time any winning Labour team walks into Downing Street. Unions could then invoke the introduction of a national minimum wage as a way of keeping industrial peace. The following year, however, might be more problematic. In private meetings, Blair has been warned that the party is presiding over a "policy void" on public sector industrial relations. As one prominent union leader put it: "There is a lot of ill feeling, but no one wants to be seen to be opening their mouths and contributing to a Labour defeat."