Unions stake a claim in Blair's vision

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The Independent Online

Political Correspondent

A "stakeholder economy" will give new impetus for the restoration of collective bargaining rights at work, according to John Monks, the leader of the TUC.

In what Tony Blair, the Labour leader, may well consider an unhelpful reminder of trade union claims on a future Labour government, Mr Monks says in an article in today's Times newspaper that while the stakeholder philosophy "reminds us that the basic stakeholder is the individual, independent unions are the means for individuals to exercise their voices or realise their stakes collectively and thus more effectively".

His comments, intended to be supportive of Mr Blair, were immediately seized on last night by Brian Mawhinney, the Conservative Party chairman. Mr Monks's article showed that Mr Blair's words, centrepiece of a speech in Singapore 10 days ago, "simply amount to a deal under which Labour's old friends in the trade union movement would get back all the power and privileges they abused in the 1970s," he said.

This was dismissed by a spokesman for Mr Blair. The stakeholder economy "is not about returning to 1970s corporatism - that's what Tony Blair has made clear and John Monks has made it clear too".

In his article, Mr Monks says that "for once the Conservatives felt they were on the front foot ... stakeholding is about unions, they said. It'll help them rebuild their position. My answer is yes, but in a way that will confound, not confirm, their claims."

He adds: "A stakeholder economy is not about a return to the 1970s. Nor does it give Tory strategists an excuse to rerun their anti-union arguments in the 1980s."

But Mr Monks risks embarrassing the Labour leader, who has spent most of his 18 months in the job emphasising the distance between his "new" Labour Party and the unions.

Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Education and Employment, told MPs yesterday Labour had never governed without union support and could not ignore them, as it still depended on them for financial support. "We are told that under new Labour there will be no return to deals over beer and sandwiches in the smoke-filled rooms of Downing Street. No, of course. Under new Labour it would be deals over smoked salmon and dry white wine in a smoke-free zone," she said.

Mr Monks in his article makes the "new" Labour case for trade unionism: "We in the unions regard ourselves as stakeholders in the common enterprise of making this country more competitive, community-minded and caring ... Employers need the collective commitment of their staff. And employees need to join together, as the relationship between employer and the individual employee is inevitably unequal.

"In the past, some have praised the collective and forgotten that its original purpose was to advance the interests of individuals. Now the stakeholder concept corrects this mistake. It reminds us of the proper role for unions and reinforces the legitimacy of representing union members."