The unions still matter to Labour - up to a point

'Since becoming leader Mr Blair has only spoken to the TUC in alternate years and he did so last year'
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The Independent Online

The deformities of the personal relationships at the top of New Labour, amply confirmed by more juicy disclosures at the weekend, lend a seductively resonant context to Gordon Brown's speech to the TUC today. The speech - his first to the TUC as Chancellor - has already been depicted as yet another sign of his apparently tireless effort to ensure that he eventually succeeds to the prize that was snatched away from him in 1994.

The deformities of the personal relationships at the top of New Labour, amply confirmed by more juicy disclosures at the weekend, lend a seductively resonant context to Gordon Brown's speech to the TUC today. The speech - his first to the TUC as Chancellor - has already been depicted as yet another sign of his apparently tireless effort to ensure that he eventually succeeds to the prize that was snatched away from him in 1994.

At best, this caricature is less than half right. The fact that Mr Brown rather than Tony Blair - who will also travel briefly to Glasgow to dine with the TUC General Council tonight - is addressing the TUC isn't all that remarkable. Since becoming leader Mr Blair has only spoken to the TUC in alternate years, and he did so last year. The Chancellor's speech was being trailed yesterday, moreover, as a thoughtful presentation on the continuing problems of Britain's productivity, competitiveness and industrial performance. This is appropriate to the occasion and hardly the stuff of leadership bids.

Indeed, insofar as the theory has any credibility at all, it is only (apart from the undoubted fact that the dysfunctional relationships in government are richly laced with the radioactive tensions of 1994) because among his audience will be almost all of the union leaders and activists with any influence over a third of the votes which will decide the party leadership when the - no doubt distant - moment comes.

The unions still matter a good deal in the Labour Party, in other words. It didn't always seem as if this was going to be the case. It was once part of the modernisers' dream that a steadily building mass party, fired by more and more direct membership ballots, would steadily eclipse the influence of Labour affiliate unions within the party. Perhaps, it was sometimes muttered, the 50 per cent block vote at party conferences would wither away. But that hasn't happened - and there is little sign that it will.

There is more than one reason for this. One, of course, was that One Member One Vote democracy did not prove to be a reliable Blairite vehicle. The Labour affiliated unions - or more particularly, Sir Ken Jackson's engineers - made themselves political useful to the leadership (in the very short term) by seeing off Rhodri Morgan in Wales and securing the Labour candidacy of Frank Dobson in London. The second, no doubt, was that while Labour funding became much more diverse than when it depended wholly on the unions, those same affiliated unions - and many unions in the TUC, it should not be forgotten, are not affiliated - were still important enough as a form of revenue to protect some of their influence.

But there is also another reason, which has to do with the changing character of the unions themselves, and in particular, in their attitude to government. In his new authoritative study of the TUC, Robert Taylor underlines at once the weaknesses and strengths of that relationship during the 20th century.

He has extracted from the Public Record Office a riveting account by Harold Wilson of an epic dinner at Chequers with Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon as the prime minister struggled in vain to protect the last vestiges of Barbara Castle's valiant attempt to reform the unions and curb unofficial strikes. The failure to impose on the union barons the will of an elected government, with a majority of over 100, is summed up by the terse thank-you note left by Scanlon on the hall table as he left early the following morning: "Dear Prime Minister... sorry we could not find basis for agreement but thanks for an enjoyable and interesting evening." A poignant epitaph for a failure which changed political history to Labour's disadvantage.

But Taylor also describes the extraordinary - and long forgotten - resolution with which Walter Citrine's TUC threw itself behind the war effort in the conviction that civilisation was in deadly peril and that the peace would bring with it a juster social order. He recalls aspeech by Ernie Bevin, then a senior minister in Churchill's war-time government, in which he described talking to TGWU members waiting to embark for the beaches of Normandy, who asked him "when I went through their ranks: 'Ernie, when we have done this job for you will we go back on the dole?'... Both the Prime Minister and I answered 'no you are not'."

The point of citing these vignettes is, first, that the TUC, for all the problems unions face in a global hi-tech society, is an institution woven deep into the fabric of British society; and secondly that it - or rather the behaviour at times of some of the union leaders within the TUC - exercised a malevolent influence on British politics precisely when their attitudes to Labour governments changed from the persuasive to the proprietorial.

John Monks, the current general secretary of the TUC, appears to understand this pretty clearly. But he is also in an especially strong position to put it into practice. First, he is an intelligent articulate and politically acute spokesman for a new and rapidly changing workforce under strain. The figures should not be exaggerated; union density remains static; but membership is slowly growing. Second, both his own New Unionism and the decline, post-cold war, of the disproportionate influence exercised by the Communist Party in the unions has eclipsed, and wholly isolated the syndicalism which now only surfaces in the entertaining annual museum piece of a speech uttered by Arthur Scargill in Glasgow yesterday. Unions in other words are less politically dangerous to Labour - in office and out of it - than they were.

So the relationship has changed - almost certainly for ever. Overall, most union leaders don't think they have governments as well as unions to run. True, Mr Blair has agreed to formalise his quarterly meetings with union leaders. But even those important government achievements, a minimum wage and recognition rights, are not quite the institutional sops for unions - as opposed to benefits for all workers - that Labour's opponents like to present them as. The first was historically opposed by many union leaders because when unionism was much more about the use of industrial muscle, it seemed to undermine the point of being in a union. And the second only works for unions if they can recruit members.

That doesn't mean the relationship is perfect. In significant ways the unions still exercise an unhealthily proprietorial claim on the party. Constructive as he is in other ways, Sir Ken Jackson's militant opposition to electoral reform and to innovations like directly elected mayors wouldn't arise if he didn't want to preserve his union's influence at every level of the party. But even this may slowly change. Because the Livingstone/Morgan elections went sour, unions will be forced to ballot their members in such elections in future - as they already are in Labour leadership elections. That will give union leaders fewer party favours to call in. And that is probably as healthy for the independence of the trade union movement as an increasingly professional and outward looking TUC is proving to be.

* d.macintyre@independent.co.uk

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