Leading article: Leave the 1970s where they belong

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The Independent Online

Britain is not going back to the 1970s, which, to judge by some of the jumpers unearthed in our story today, is probably just as well. It is lame of David Cameron to try to pretend that the Strawbs are back. His speech yesterday, in which he tried to present himself as the enemy of vested interests, failed to work on three levels. First, two strikes by BA cabin crew and rail signallers do not constitute a return to the industrial paralysis of the Winter of Discontent. Second, the financial support for the Labour Party from Britain's largest trade union does not mean that the Government is in hock to a vested interest. Third, to compare his own policy of taxing the banks to Margaret Thatcher's stand against the unions is to make what is known as a category error.

The BA strike is an unfortunate and probably unwise dispute. No doubt there have been miscalculations and provocations on both sides. The airline's management, led by Willie Walsh, is certainly right that its costs, mostly in the form of wages, are higher than those of its competitors. But the union has accepted the need for pay cuts and reform of working practices, and most cabin crew are not highly paid. What is undeniable is that union members voted for a strike, by 81 per cent on a 79 per cent turnout. Thus Margaret Thatcher's reforms, trumpeted by Mr Cameron in his speech as a triumph over vested interests, have succeeded: "She broke the stranglehold of the union barons and gave every worker an equal right and equal say." It was stridently partisan and needlessly antagonistic for Mr Cameron to demand in the House of Commons last week that the Prime Minister support strike-breakers who cross picket lines.

What, then, of the Conservative assault on Mr Brown's government as a wholly-owned subsidiary of Charlie Whelan? That is about as credible as Mr Whelan's flat cap. The political director of Unite, the mega-union formed by the merger of the Transport and General Workers Union and Amicus three years ago, practises a form of politics that is unattractive. It does not reflect well on the Prime Minister, for whom he was press secretary in his first year as Chancellor, that Mr Whelan remains in his counsels. But the idea that the Government is in the pocket of Unite contains only the smallest grain of truth.

This newspaper is not comfortable with the extent to which the unions, and in particular one giant union, still have a formal say in Labour Party policy. It is among the many ways in which money continues to exert a baleful influence on our politics, of which Lord Ashcroft's secret tax status and Tony Blair's secretive earnings are but two more examples. But in practice, Unite is an dysfunctional marriage of two unions, each as deeply divided internally as they now are between each other. And in this dispute it is simply wrong to say that Mr Brown has either had any influence in the union's favour, or that it is in his interest to advance the union's cause. Mr Brown has an overwhelming political interest in the dispute being settled, which is why it was such a disaster for him that it went ahead – and why, incidentally, Mr Cameron has sought to exploit his embarrassment.

Which brings us, finally, to the substance of Mr Cameron's speech. The Opposition leader is to be commended for taking a position on the banks that is just a smidgeon more aggressive than that of the Government. He committed the Conservative Party to bringing in an "insurance levy" on banks, regardless of what other countries decide. As the Tories point out, a comprehensive international agreement is likely, and, even if it is not secured, the risk of banks moving to low-tax centres has been exaggerated. It is encouraging in the run-up to a close-fought election to see the Tories trying to outbid the Labour Party on fairness.

But Mr Cameron fails the evenhandedness test. Many voters' sense of fairness is offended by the Tory party's mild response to the £63m earned last year by Bob Diamond, president of Barclays, compared with its bullying tone towards low-paid members of the Unite union.

For many, Mr Cameron's attempt to pose as tough on City fat cats rings hollow because he failed to confront Lord Ashcroft, his own party's rich backer. He would have been wiser to avoid making parallels with the 1970s. He would have presented a more persuasive argument that a Conservative government would promote fairness if he had not tried to pretend that Mr Brown is James Callaghan and the Thatcher union reforms had never happened.