TUC leader puts faith in Middle England: Barrie Clement interviews John Monks, new general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, ahead of next week's annual assembly

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The Independent Online
SOMEWHERE out there lurks the Middle Englander. A person of conservative outlook who usually votes Tory, but who has no powerful political convictions.

He or she will be in middle to senior management and will have been asked to sign a fixed-term contract with a proportion of salary based on assessment by superiors, on 'performance' and on profit. In a recent 'down-sizing operation' colleagues will have been made redundant.

John Monks, who takes over as general secretary of the TUC at the end of its annual assembly next week, has spent much time painting a mental picture of such a person. He believes this Middle Englander is feeling insecure. The concept of the 'steady job' is all but dead.

Margaret Thatcher's injunctions about the primacy of family values are being undermined by Thatcherite employment policies, by the fear of unrenewed contracts or redundancy.

These feelings of insecurity, Mr Monks believes, could revive not only the fortunes of white-collar unions, but also the electoral chances of the Labour Party. In his office at Congress House in central London, Mr Monks speaks of his belief in a change of mood among electors.

'The notorious insecurities of the construction industry, with its long history of subcontracting, casual work and bonus payments are being visited on a whole new range of employees. The things we are saying are beginning to chime with people's experience from all kinds of backgrounds.' He is a thoughtful, undemonstrative successor to Norman Willis, whose joviality and inarticulateness became an albatross around the neck of the labour movement. Mr Monks, a rugby league loving Mancunian with a taste for classical music, is determined to capture the public's imagination.

He is eliminating his 'ums' and 'ers' for the electronic media, cultivating his naturally equable personality and taking every opportunity to put the case for the underdog. He looks young for his 48 years. You might believe him to be a managing director of a medium-sized company - or perhaps a Middle Englander.

But what if his 'Mr Sensible' persona goes unheard amid the clamour from left and right? What of his reputation as a grey bureaucrat who gnawed his way up the Congress House hierarchy?

'No one likes criticism, but as a public figure you have to face up to it. Anyway, I do not see the word bureaucrat as necessarily derogatory. It can refer to dedication and professionalism, which I take pride in. I intend to be a champion of people at work and those who want work.'

The themes he will be pursuing certainly require a degree of extroversion. As of yesterday a statute was introduced that he sees as the biggest threat to the fabric of unions since Mrs Thatcher came to power. Over the next 12 months six million union members will have to renew their authorisation for employers to deduct union subscriptions from pay. Mr Monks will be leading a campaign to ensure that they do so - or agree to a direct debit from their bank accounts. It will involve, as he puts it, 'six million conversations'.

His powers of persuasion will also be required to ensure that he is able to 'relaunch' the TUC as a media- friendly campaigning body. He believes its future can only be secured if it is able to influence politicians of all persuasions, 'and that includes the Government'.

David Hunt, Secretary of State for Employment, had said his door will be open to the new model TUC. 'We will be walking through it,' Mr Monks says. The Commons, he believes, is little better than a school debating society without the mechanisms to arrive at sensible decisions over economic policy through dispassionate discussions. Mr Monks is a seeker after consensus.

But is there any fire left in the Monks belly? Has anything made him really angry about the last 13 years of Conservative government?

Unhesitatingly, he chooses the abolition of wages councils, which set legal minimum wages for 2.4 million workers, 80 per cent of them women, most of them part-time and many from ethnic minorities.

'That wasn't another kick at the unions, that was a kick at the some of poorest working people in the country whose wages were set at a very modest level - nothing much more than pounds 3 an hour. At least where it was observed by employers it was some kind of safety net for them. The reasons for doing it were specious. It was simply a sop to bad employers. Many good employers are embarrassed by the decision. It is unforgivable.'

(Photograph omitted)