The unions must end the heartache and get a divorce from Labour

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The most inspired Relate counsellor would be hard-pressed to make much sense of the relationship between Labour and the trade unions.

The most inspired Relate counsellor would be hard-pressed to make much sense of the relationship between Labour and the trade unions. For 10 years the patterns have defied prediction. One partner has been stroppy when it has had cause to be emollient. The other has been emollient when it should have been stroppy. With darkly comical mistiming both have played hard to get or sent flowers at the wrong time.

The discordant events of last week were a case in point. After Monday's Comprehensive Spending Review announcement the unions should have gone at least a little dewy-eyed over No 10 and the Treasury. Here, at last, was a significant commitment from the Government to stake its reputation on improving public services. Instead there were strikes galore and a "Blairite loyalist" was ousted – or almost ousted – as general secretary of one of the biggest unions. The unions have stood off just as the Government is starting to get interested again – at least in reviving the state of schools and hospitals.

A Relate counsellor would rightly point out that troublemakers on the outside are exaggerating the degree of animosity. Contrary to some reports, the present conflict is not remotely similar to the Winter of Discontent. The economy now is relatively sound. Inflation is low. The public sector is expanding. The new generation of union leaders is largely pragmatic, wary of being too cosy with the Government.

Even so, with all due respect to our counsellor, if strikes continue to disrupt public services over the next two years there will be a single consequence. The many sceptics who believe that Britain is incapable of organising high-quality public services would claim vindication. The cry would go out around the land: send for McDonald's to run the schools, swimming pools and hospitals! The unions are getting restless at the wrong moment. They had much more cause to give the Government the cold shoulder during its first term, but at that time they were emollient. The Government whacked them around a bit, and they came back for more. For the first few years the Government virtually froze public spending and partially privatised air traffic control and the London Underground.

Ministers expected trouble. Gordon Brown's biggest fear when he entered the Treasury was that his "prudent" plans would be challenged by a wave of strikes. His spokesman at the time, Charlie Whelan, made clear that they would see off any industrial action. They would not give in. The BBC's Today programme was ready for the excitement. Viewing politics as a never-ending Daily Mail headline, the programme invited Ken Livingstone and Bill Morris to appear on the Friday after the 1997 election. Let the trouble begin. Only it did not. Mr Morris supported the prudent line and continued to do so for much of the first term.

So did most of his colleagues. Each year at the annual TUC conference the clichés poured out in advance:Tony Blair/Gordon Brown/Eddie George will enter the lion's den when they make their speech ...". The lions never roared. In return for such restraint, Mr Blair should have shown some appreciation. Billets-doux from Downing Street should have been arriving on the desk of John Monks and others. Instead, the Prime Minister was disdainfully abrasive. Just when the unions were lying back and thinking of England, he snubbed them. He openly "bore the scars on his back", trying to reform the public services; the unions were "wreckers".

More provocatively, Mr Blair had an affair with another partner. A senior figure from the CBI tells me that during the first term business leaders used to go to No 10 with a tough negotiating position, assuming they would have to compromise. But there was no need to compromise as there was no negotiation. The Prime Minister agreed right away to their demands.

He tried it on even more after the last election. All the Government's controversial reforms involving the private sector had been passed during the first term – the Private Finance Initiatives and the Public Private Partnerships. There had been only a whimper of protest. No matter, he wanted to pick a fight with the unions by raising again the importance of the private sector's involvement in public services. At a time when he needed the unions' goodwill to work with him in changing public services for the better, he started the biggest fight of the lot for no obvious reason.

At that point, even John Monks, the TUC general secretary, could stand it no longer. He is a barometer figure, someone who has tried to work constructively with the Government, and now feels partially alienated. The failure to keep him fully on board has been Mr Blair's biggest miscalculation in this relationship. Last week Mr Monks, though, was doing his bit again, cooling things down. There is some evidence that Downing Street is doing its bit too. The Prime Minister will not concede to big changes in labour laws, as the unions seek. But there is a palpable fear in No 10 that "Government versus the Unions" will become the theme of the autumn, jeopardising its attempts to reform the public services. Mr Blair will be addressing this autumn's TUC conference partly to show he cares, that he wants a dialogue. A recent article in which Peter Hain criticised the Government's handling of the unions was approved in advance by the Downing Street machine. In theory there is some scope for reconciliation. But at a time when Mr Blair is holding out half a hand and investing in public services the unions are, perversely, getting stroppy.

This discord goes back further. During the 1992 election union leaders were nowhere to be seen. Regarded as vote losers, they were told by Neil Kinnock to keep out of the way. The day after the campaign they were on every radio and TV outlet, announcing that if Mr Kinnock resigned John Smith should be leader: nowhere one minute, anointing a leader the next. Mr Smith should have kept his distance after such a curious display, but he was emollient. He needed their support for internal party reforms, so he wooed them with some big promises on policy. At which point Mr Blair moved on to the stage, wielding his stick. The unions started to purr again. New Labour needs the unions' money, but it tries too hard to show that the money does not buy influence. The unions convince themselves that the relationship gives them influence, even though they find their overtures are rebuffed more often than not.

Our Relate counsellor would throw her hands up in despair. For the sake of both sides there is only one way forward: get a divorce.