Labour and the unions may need relationship guidance but their marriage is far from over

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Indy Politics

Bob Crow's talk yesterday of a "divorce" between the Labour Party and its trade union founders may be premature, but the once-close partners are certainly leading separate lives.

Ministers and union bosses agree privately that the two sides are on diverging paths. For the new generation of union leaders, the Labour Government has not delivered enough for the party's traditional supporters and is too keen to listen to big business.

At the same time, ministers are increasingly furious at the way the unions "pocket" gains and concessions from the Government, and then move swiftly to the next demand on their shopping list. For example, Labour got little credit for a ground-breaking deal to prevent "two-tier workforces" when private firms take over local government services.

Ministers insist Labour has delivered for the unions, pointing to the national minimum wage, an expansion of workplace rights and a hike in spending on public services, much of which has been soaked up by more jobs and higher wages.

Tony Blair has never been loved by the unions and has never loved them. Perhaps he would not lose much sleep if the unions walked away.

The Prime Minister is so unpopular among trade union activists that the only way to win a union election is on an anti-Blair ticket. This has created the "awkward squad" of union bosses, including the RMT's Mr Crow (who supports the Socialist Alliance and is not a Labour member); Tony Woodley, the newly elected leader of the Transport and General Workers Union, who wants the unions to "reclaim the party"; Mick Rix of the train drivers' union Aslef; Billy Hayes of the Communication Workers Union and Andy Gilchrist, whose Fire Brigades Union galvanised the movement by standing up to the Government.

Mr Blair always wanted his modernisation project to extend to the unions. But instead of backing moves by the former TUC general secretary John Monks to foster a "new unionism", the Labour leadership relied on loyalist unions such as the AEEU (now Amicus) to steady the ship. The strategy fell apart when its leader Sir Ken Jackson, Mr Blair's closest union ally, was ousted by Derek Simpson, a former Communist.

One way the unions can show disapproval is by taking away money from Labour, as the RMT conference agreed yesterday. The unions provide a third of the party's income but have refused to sign a collective deal to put the cash-starved party on a secure long-term footing. This could force the state funding of political parties on to the agenda, though Mr Blair is unwilling to act without all-party support.

The simmering discontent is expected to boil over at Labour's annual conference this autumn, which could be Mr Blair's trickiest as party leader. The unions will attack the Government over Iraq, workplace rights and public-private partnerships.

Ministers fear disaffected union members will abstain in droves at the next general election. Bill Morris, the outgoing TGWU leader, warned on Monday: "Shouting in empty rooms, stamping in puddles or banging on the window with a sponge will not put a single penny on the minimum wage and will not save our members' jobs, but it could give Iain Duncan Smith the keys to 10 Downing Street."

Mr Morris has proposed a joint commission to discuss the party-union link. Although the two partners are scrapping, they have nowhere else to go. They are in need of some marriage guidance, but will not be heading for the divorce courts yet.