A word of caution from Brother Blair

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The Independent Online
SO HE has done it again. Tony Blair, confronted with a 'difficult' issue, in this case Labour's relations with the trade unions, has gone just a little further than is politically prudent. He refused to weigh in on the side of the railway signalmen because he aspired 'to govern for the entire country'. Asked about the inevitable anger his remarks would arouse at the TUC, where he was heading, he retorted: 'Then there will have to be a disagreement about that.'

No meal in that mouth; and his remarks behind closed doors with the union leaders themselves were said to have been even blunter. He had rejected suggestions that he should avoid being publicly photographed with Jimmy Knapp as implying that he was in some way embarrassed by the issue. On the contrary, he told advisers, what was essential was absolute clarity.

This refreshing straightforwardness is becoming a Blair hallmark, and will catch voters' attention because it carries a faint tang of danger, a whiff of unpredictability: it will not make for a smooth ride, but it will make for an exciting one. In that respect, Mr Blair seems to have learnt from Margaret Thatcher.

Other members of the frontbench team have sounded more evasive on this question, somehow older. Even David Blunkett, the party chairman, weaved carefully in his Blackpool speech between impeccable modernism and old- style reassurance. 'As trade unionists,' he said, 'you don't expect or need favours or privileges from us . . .' But he then went on to explain that this was because 'you seek what is right, what is just, what is fair . . . You and your members are part of our historic family.' This was a classic political sentence, laying out two different messages side by side and hoping different audiences would hear the one they wanted to.

Mr Blunkett is a good and thoughtful man, but that's the stuff we are wearily accustomed to, from a host of politicians, on a host of issues. Finally, though, even Mr Blair's opponents on the trade union issue are getting him right. 'Tony has chosen not to speak in the traditional tones of the Labour Party, he does not use the time-honoured formulas. That gives rise to anxieties,' quoth a worried John Edmonds of the GMB. It could not have been better put. I am beginning to wonder whether Brother Edmonds is working secretly for a clique of Labour modernisers. Is Peter Mandelson running him as a double agent?

On the substance of this matter, it is worth restating that the idea of a special link between some future Labour government and the trade union movement is based on a misconception which is equally damaging to both sides. It is that there is no necessary power struggle between organised labour and other interests - small businesses, big businesses, non-unionised workers, the unemployed, pensioners. This was the bland lie that was destroyed during the Seventies.

But that is not intended as an anti-union point. If the unions never do anything which threatens the position of those other interests, by affecting profits, or taking a larger slice of national wealth for their members, or confronting governments, then they are failing their members: what is the point of paying a fee to a union if it doesn't buy you extra power vis-a- vis other people?

Trade unions pretend that their interests are everybody's interests (so does General Motors) but really they work best when they do what they were created to do, which is to fight for their members. They may come to do that in new ways, such as providing skills upgrading for members shifting from one job to another, or tutoring workers about how to sell their services for a higher price. But in the global economy, their future cannot depend on favours from national government.

Unions do have, of course, a right to a fair legal framework that balances their form of leverage against other interests. Today, there is a case for a reform of the law in favour of trade unionism, particularly given the staunchly conservative approach of senior judges over the past decade.

Tony Blair, with his close interest in labour law, knows this as well as anyone, and has a duty to make the case openly and vividly. It is not only a matter of equity but of the national interest: the creation of what has been called 'an industrial peasantry' would be a grim thing for all of us.

But fairness is something that cannot, by definition, be achieved by negotiation behind closed doors between members of the same 'family'. For Labour to readopt the old relationship, with its peculiar mixed flavour of menace and sentimentality, would, at a stroke, remove its claim to national leadership. Its criticism of the Conservatives is that they are provocative about union issues because they think echoes of the Seventies is good news for them; that they are fundamentally unserious about good labour relations; that they are no longer thinking first of the country. Fair or not, that is an argument which can be made only from the high ground.

So Mr Blair has to be able to convince voters that when he speaks about changing the law, he is doing so for reasons of equity, which have nothing to do with who pays the bills for Labour headquarters - that he has risen above faction. In today's sour climate that is a hard thing to persuade people about. But it is crucial, because it is ultimately about authority. That was why yesterday's words were so blunt, so lacking in common prudence - and so well-chosen.

(Photograph omitted)