Leading article: A tightrope for Mr Brown – and for the trade unions

Click to follow

As a Prime Minister, Gordon Brown will face much tougher assignments than his visit to the annual trade union congress in Brighton today. Although there are substantial tensions between the Government and the unions, Mr Brown will not be entering the equivalent of the lion's den. The general secretary of the TUC, Brendon Barber, has stated this weekend that on the whole the unions are well disposed to Mr Brown and his government. Almost certainly most of those gathered in the Brighton conference centre this week prefer Prime Minister Brown to his predecessor, Tony Blair, who had no obvious rapport with the unions.

As for Mr Brown, he will not be too worried about the difference with his government that will surface this week. In his current role as the leader of a big tent, Mr Brown deploys much political energy to show that he is not the tribal politician who leans to the left. Instead, he wants to be seen as a prime minister who seeks consensus on the centre ground. The odd row with the unions serves Mr Brown's broader political purpose.

Nonetheless, there are issues of real substance that are being debated with a fresh intensity in Brighton, of which the most contentious relates predictably to public sector pay. Already Mr Brown has issued warnings about increases in public sector pay. He does so with good cause. Pay in most parts of the public sector has increased substantially in recent years. The forthcoming public spending round is already extremely tight and excessive pay rises would only mean cuts elsewhere. Yet there are some worrying signs of a new union militancy that will address the interests of no one, including the members of the unions that contemplate strike action. Mr Brown was right to condemn the Tube strikes that caused chaos in London at the beginning of last week, an example of wholly unnecessary and destructive industrial action. What a shame union leaders did not join in the condemnation of a pointless strike.

Other areas of tension are more complex. Union leaders speak for many in highlighting the extreme inequality gap in Britain and the anomalies that allow some of the highest earners to pay little tax. Mr Brown has acknowledged publicly that inequality is an issue, but is reluctant to act. He walks a political tightrope, wary of acting in ways that would undermine the City's booming economy. He is also reluctant to utter a word that revives allegations that he is an Old Labour figure who puts up taxes. Mr Brown understands the dismay about unjustified and massive pay rises at the top, although, even if he does make gestures in this direction, it is unlikely to be enough to satisfy the union movement.

The gap is bigger in relation to his plans for party reforms. The Prime Minister wants to give Labour members the final say in drawing up election manifestos. In doing so he would remove the unchallenged sovereignty of the party conference. He also intends to scrap the contemporary resolutions, extensively used by the unions to defeat the leadership – often by wielding the block vote. If the unions accept the internal reforms, it will be largely because of their desire not to cause Mr Brown too many problems in the build-up to the next general election.

But the unions should be focusing this week on the wider challenges and opportunities they face. There is an encouraging new focus across the political spectrum on the quality of life in the workplace. Unions could play a leading role in this debate. Yet some of the union leaders seem more determined to return to the outdated approach of the 1970s in ways that threaten to alienate a new generation of voters. If they continue to act with such a parochial insularity it will be more than their relationship with Mr Brown that suffers.