Blair can dump unions, but not the poor

Winning the battle for Middle England will not be enough if Labour is to survive in power
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The furious mobbing of Labour's David Blunkett by militant teachers, the strike vote and the decision by Unison activists to oppose reform of Labour's Clause IV were not typical events - most teachers are not Socialist Workers and Tony Blair will win this month's vote on Labour's aims. But they were important events, symbolic of a bigger truth.

Relations between the Labour leadership and the leadership of some unions are bad, and getting worse. There is a cold anger in the political party and a resentment among left-wing union activists that reminds one, however gently, of the bitter fag-end of the last Labour administration.

As one frontbencher was told by a local bus driver recently: "I'm looking forward to getting my marching boots on again. In the Seventies, we marched together, but in the Nineties, my friend, we'll be marching against you.''

For some Labour people, this is all good news. They reckon that the union connection is an ancient electoral albatross, just so many pounds of stinking seabird slung round the party's neck. If the union leaders are throwing their weight around, then sooner or later, the fowl will drop - and good riddance.

Could Labour live without the trade unions? Electorally, one of the achievements of Thatcherism was to remind all politicians that there are, on any given issue, more consumers than producers. There are more children and parents than teachers; more people putting out dustbins than collecting them; more taxpayers than government employees.

As a producers' party, Labour in power never satisfied its industrial supporters, who were routinely "betrayed" by ministers when they demanded more than the nation could give them. Nor did it reassure the public. And today, Labour's internal polling confirms that its new supporters remain seriously worried about a revival of union militancy in the future.

Therefore, goes the argument, it is essential for New Labour to be unequivocally on the side of users and taxpayers - more consumers' association than workers' party. This is a lesson that the best of Labour councils have learnt during the wilderness years. The party's English local government campaign, launched yesterday, was stuffed with Majorite references to auditing, value for money, performance targets and cost implications. Labour local government leaders can be among the toughest critics of public- sector trade unionism.

And the thought that the interests of Labour and the unions are inevitably diverging is highlighted whenever union leaders speak about economics. The belief that a Labour government could pull a few levers and deliver full employment has been destroyed in the political party; it apparently lives on in the minds of some union leaders. There is, similarly, an argument for a basic minimum wage. But its cost depends on its level, and this is a complex, serious economic and political question for a future Labour government. The idea that it should be haggled over with union leaders is grotesque.

Finally, the union leaders' influence on Labour has depended heavily on their financial support and their position on general management committees of the local parties on which Labour MPs depend. In both cases, the union position has weakened significantly.

Twenty years ago, unions were responsible for around 90 per cent of Labour's general funding. Today, the figure is below 50 per cent (although the union contribution to the general election war-chest is nearly 100 per cent). Back in 1979, there were 7.5 million people affiliated as trade unionists to the party; now there are 3.6 million. The funding gap is increasingly made up by individual donors - 100,000 of them - and the odd corporate donation. Labour still declines to solicit money from companies, but the £25,000 from Pearson plc earlier this year may be an omen.

Similarly, while a few years ago most MPs relied on the political backing of local union representatives, Labour's internal reforms have transformed the situation. Many trade unionists are still there, but as individual members: for the average Labour MP, the voice of the union bureaucracy matters less than at any time in the party's history.

A break between Labour and the unions is not, in short, unthinkable. Indeed, among some Blairite MPs, it has been thunk.

It might, in time, do both sides quite a lot of good. The battle-cry of Jack Dromey, standing against Bill Morris for the leadership of the Transport and General Union, has been that he wants it to be a first-rate trade union, not a second-rate political party; and this should resonate.

But - the big But, the but-of-buts - Labour cannot, should not, must not, break with the millions of lower-paid and unemployed people who have partly looked to the trade union movement for their salvation. Someone must speak for them. Labour is not simply the party of Middle England, and cannot ever be. There is another country, Lower Britain, and it is a frightened and angry place.

If Labour in power failed to offer it leadership and hope, then two things would happen. First, Lower Britain would eventually turn elsewhere, perhaps to a period of militant syndicalism, perhaps to political dissent of a different kind. And second, Labour would again wither as a force for change, caught between soulless managerialism and the agenda of modern Toryism.

This would be a terrible fate for Labour, and bad news for the political culture. Avoiding it is the next great test for Tony Blair's politics of realism. No government can offer security in the global market, or higher living standards than a country earns. But there are still real choices to be made about the distribution of opportunities and a real distinction to be made between the parties on tax, employment law and the minimum wage.

Blair has achieved a lot. He has the ear of the country - Middle, Lower and, it seems, Upper as well. No one believes that he is in hock to Unison, or any other trade union. If the unions push him, he can and will defeat them and they will suffer for that mistake, not just now, but for many years ahead.

He is in a position of great strength and, as a strong leader, now needs to move to the next stage. He can, I think, afford to loosen up a little. It is time to moderate the language of audit, and to sound a bit angrier. It is time for the Labour leadership generally to start putting some policy flesh on the bones and to speak from the gut as well as the calculating head. It is time to talk more about what Labour will do in power, and less about what it won't.

One day, it seems, Tony Blair is likely to be in Number Ten and, therefore almost certainly, will be in confrontation with public sector workers. He has, in Neil Kinnock's rueful phrase, got his betrayal in first. The unions and the public know where he stands. But that is only the start. If he is to be survive, he needs to have won not just the trust of Middle England but also the enthusiasm of Lower Britain.

Trade union leaders matter less these days; and yes, Labour could survive without them. But the people who join unions, or would like to, do matter; and without them there would be no Labour Party worth the name.