Unions try to change their ways and learn to live with consensus: Barrie Clement looks back on a largely untroubled Trades Union Congress in Blackpool and wonders how long the calm can continue

Click to follow
Indy Politics
UNIONS can never quite manage it. With next month's Labour Party conference in mind, delegates at the TUC Congress in Blackpool did their best to behave themselves.

The first Congress after the party's election defeat could have ended in the opening of old wounds. It did not.

Despite a noble effort, however, they did not succeed in avoiding controversy. The new consensual face of trade unionism was seen in the flirtation with Howard Davies, director general of the CBI.

Apart from the predictable walkout by Arthur Scargill and a bout of ill-temper from some members of the National Union of Teachers, the first invitation to an employer to address Congress passed off agreeably enough, despite the message of wage restraint he brought. In fact some senior officials are now toying with the idea of inviting a government minister to the conference next year.

The TUC also succeeded in throwing a procedural blanket over what could have been an extremely damaging row: to wit the readmission of the electricians' union to Congress after its expulsion four years ago.

Even the beleaguered and maligned Norman Willis, the TUC general secretary, rode out a pre- congress kerfuffle and still clings to his job.

Every proposition was carried with the kind of majorities once associated with the Soviet Communist Party's central committee. It was the first Congress in living memory where all motions were clearly passed with a show of hands without resort to the laborious 'card vote' process in which unions deploy their block voting power.

This was a product of the ability of Congress House officials to draft 'composite' motions in which all shades of opinion are represented including those which are contradictory. Thus differences were suppressed rather than resolved.

But the most damaging event of the week was not the antics of a few diehards, it was the musings on economics of one of the movement's establishment figures. Just hours before John Smith, the leader of the Labour Party, appeared in Blackpool for a private dinner with the TUC's ruling general council, John Edmonds, general secretary of the GMB general union, ventured that it was time for an immediate realignment of the European exchange rate mechanism. Devaluation by another name.

In a perfect world it would matter little if an obscure leader of an esoteric-sounding trade union, formerly referred to as 'the boilermakers', offered an opinion on the relative value of sterling. Mr Edmonds's remarks were taken more seriously.

There are two main reasons for this. First, the GMB's share of unions' block vote at the Labour Party conference; secondly, the fact that Mr Smith is sponsored as an MP by the GMB.

A review body on the links between the party and the unions is pondering on ways in which the relationship should be shaped in future. It is likely that the most contentious element of the link, the 90 per cent block vote unions enjoy in policy-making, will be reduced next month to at least 70 per cent.

In the foreseeable future, however, unions will be seen to wield a critical influence on Labour policy because one way or another a constitutional relationship will remain.

Even if all formal links were dissolved, senior union leaders will inevitably wield a degree of influence on Labour Party leaders - a state of affairs which will continue to be exploited by the movement's enemies.