Jeremy Corbyn managed the unusual achievement of turning up on the rostrum at the TUC conference so late that he missed his own standing ovation. Hundreds of delegates rose as one as he was announced. They clapped, they cheered, some chanted “Jez we can”. And they clapped and cheered. And clapped and cheered some more until the tumult peetered into disappointed silence.
“He is on his way,” the chairman promised.
When finally he arrived, the uproar restarted. His 25-minute address ended with yet another round of wild applause – three standing ovations from an audience that would listen to Tony Blair in sullen silence at best.
The union bosses naturally enjoyed hearing from a Labour leader who had not come to distance himself from the TUC. Corbyn spoke to the hall, not to the nation outside the hall. He reminded them that he was a full-time union official before he was an MP. “I have been a trade union member all my life,” he declared.
But despite the surface harmony and meeting of minds, relations between the union movement and the new leader are not as close as they appear. It has been so long since Corbyn worked for a union that the one which employed him, the National Union of Public Employees, ceased to exist more than 20 years ago.
During 32 years in Parliament, he was too far out on the left to have many direct dealings with the big beasts of the TUC.
His deputy, Tom Watson, is far better plugged in.
The union leaders know that their ability to recruit and retain members depends on their being able to produce results.
In the hall were employees of the National Gallery who have been on indefinite strike since August in opposition to privatisation, with who knows what hope of success. The TUC is girding itself for a prolonged campaign against the new Trade Union Bill. If it had a sympathetic government, it would not need to fight these fights.
Union leaders are saying nothing public to undermine Jeremy Corbyn because it would be like a long spring Christmas if he were to make it to Downing Street. No organisation contributed more to Corbyn’s victory than Britain’s biggest union, Unite, yet on arriving in Brighton I was taken aside by a senior figure in that union who asked anxiously: “How long do you think he’ll last?”
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