If this is the new militancy, the unions are in trouble

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If the Private Finance Initiative is the issue on which the militants hope the trade unions will regain their political muscle, they have miscalculated badly; the unions should stick to issues such as pensions.

Much talk in the trade union world of a new wave of militant leaders taking over from the compromised old guard. Some of it is shiny-eyed nostalgia for the days when debates at the Trades Union Congress would shake the nation. Some of it is wishful thinking indulged in by the Labour left, which has not had much to be wishful about for a good 10 years.

Most of the evidence for this radicalisation of union leaderships consists of the ousting earlier this year of Sir Ken Jackson by Derek Simpson as the head of what used to be the Amalgamated Engineering Union. This week, however, we are promised an assembly in Blackpool that is more assertive than ever, not just on foreign policy, but on the subject of private-sector involvement in the public services.

We shall see. It has always been the case that union leaders who become too closely identified with employers or governments risk replacement in union elections by fire-breathing militants. Political activists work hard to get them elected, and political inactivists vote for them because they think they will strike a harder bargain for their interests. Once elected, however, they often temper rhetoric with pragmatism.

We also wonder whether the unions really have the moral or political leverage to force the Government to retreat on the Private Finance Initiative and public-private partnerships. This is complicated territory, in which the interests of trade unionists, public-sector workers and public-sector union leaders are not the same. As consumers of public services, trade unionists have an interest in seeing them provided efficiently and effectively and – as consumers – usually recognise that a state monopoly is a bad idea.

Nor will any posturing on this subject pass the inversion test. If the CBI demanded policy changes of a Conservative government on the basis of corporate donations to party funds, it would be roundly condemned by fair-minded observers.

If this is the issue on which the militants hope the trade unions will regain their political muscle, they have miscalculated badly. The unions should stick to issues such as pensions, on which they yesterday fairly represented their members.

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