First division Lady; profile; Liz Symons

Polly Toynbee on the trade union peer who fits New Labour like an elegant glove
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The Independent Online
WHEN the news broke on Wednesday morning, the phones in various trade union offices began to grumble and mutter. Liz Symons? A Labour peerage? Typical Blair!

If Tony Blair wanted to elevate a trade union leader to the Lords, why did he pick the leader of a union that is scarcely a union at all, the First Division Association for top civil servants? What has Ms Symons ever done for The Movement? Where are her real roots in trade unionism or the Labour Party? "She's not exactly working class," said one unionist caustically. "But her face fits, doesn't it? A Barbara Follett, a New Labour clone lady. Nice voice, nice clothes, nice education, nice trade union, and now a nice fat handle."

The bitterness is understandable among trade unionists whose noses have been so put out of joint of late. Why not some other more deserving, keen Blair loyalists - what of Garfield Davies of Usdaw, for instance? Or Alan Johnson, the beleaguered leader of the Communication Workers' Union? (Though elevating him in the middle of the turmoil of the postal strike might not be politic.) The suspicion is that Mr Blair wanted a "safe" trade unionist, not a real trade unionist at all. For the FDA is a curious hybrid. Why, even Sir Robin Butler, the Cabinet Secretary himself, belongs to it.

Liz Symons will leave the FDA to take up her seat in the Lords as a full- time working Labour peer. She will join the array of formidable front- bench baronesses who carry much of Labour's business in the upper house, such as Ladies Hollis, Jay, Blackstone, Gould and Turner. It will be a hard-working life, and will probably leave her out of pocket. She will exchange a salary of nearly pounds 60,000 for expenses of pounds 33 a day for 140 days of the year - a meagre pounds 4,620 a year, plus a bit of a housing allowance. Baroness Hollis says she sometimes makes as many as 30 speeches in a week, so it will not be a particularly cushy job and few people will bother to report anything much of what she says in the Lords.

That may come as a disappointment to a woman who has enjoyed the limelight as a phenomenally able television performer. While her pleasing appearance and snazzy dressing helps, the quality that television news and documentary producers most keenly seek out is the ability to make a worthwhile point in a sharp, 20-second sound-bite - and do it in one take. (It is astounding how many politicians and public figures cannot do it, no matter how many training sessions the spin doctors put them through: Kenneth Clarke and William Waldegrave are among those incapable of speaking compactly.)

Some might say this is a paltry talent. Why should they reduce complexity to a pithy phrase or two? But it has become an inexorable law of modern communications, defied at peril, and Liz Symons has a command of that unpalatable fact, sourly envied by some of her fellow trade unionists. Without that talent, she would not have been much in the public eye and might not now be donning the ermine.

THE ETHOS of the civil service courses through Liz Symons's veins: she is the daughter of a former chief inspector of taxes. Now 45, she went to a private school, Putney High in London, and then to Girton College, Cambridge. Afterwards she passed the civil service exams with flying colours and, to the astonishment of various merchant banks that made her lucrative offers,chose public service over private profit. As she would no doubt have been a high-flyer, she surprised her colleagues when she shifted to the union side. She spent 12 years in the Inland Revenue Staff Federation, rising to deputy general secretary, until her appointment to the FDA top job in 1989.

She has an 11-year-old son who was confirmed last week, under the eye of his godparents - Clive Brook, joint general secretary of the Public Service, Tax and Commerce Union, and John Lloyd of the Financial Times. She is a devout member of the Church of England, attending in the Wiltshire village where she and her long-standing partner, Philip Basset, industrial editor of the Times, have a country retreat away from their London home in Westminster. Some might find a partnership between a Murdoch writer on trade union matters and a trade unionist curious. But the FDA is no ordinary union.

"I am passionate about the civil service," she once said, which draws a wry smile. How can you be passionate about etiolated old Sir Humphrey - or Sir Robin, for that matter? "I know it's not a civil service word, but it is a very fine institution run by very fine people." That passion has been the secret of her success. Her 11,000 members know that she is unswervingly on their side, come hell or high water.

And there has been a lot of hell and high water since she took over. She has had to handle the Scott report, the Nolan inquiry and a new code of practice for civil servants. She stoutly championed the cause of the prisons director Derek Lewis, sacked by Michael Howard. She has always trodden a delicate path, batting for her members' interests while protesting that she is acting for the general public good. That is a familiar trade union position: we are used to nurses, doctors and teachers pleading that their own special interests are synonymous with the public interest - sometimes true, sometimes not.

But as head of the FDA, Liz Symons has a special edge. She speaks for her silent, gagged and mysterious membership. She dons their majestic mantle and she says things they couldn't possibly say. She is virtually the only glimpse the world ever gets of the closed and secretive corridors of power. Did she always speak what was in their minds? Presumably often enough, since there is nothing to stop the Sir Humphreys marching out of the union in a huff if they felt she was misrepresenting them.

But more to the point, did she speak for the public interest, as she always claimed? She stoutly defended her civil servants caught up in the arms-to-Iraq scandal. If no ministers would carry the can, then she made sure none of her members would, either. There is a fair amount of justice in that - but where does it leave the public? With no one to blame. Ministers may have been to blame, but so were some senior civil servants. When it turned out that civil servants had written a disgracefully mendacious press release to accompany the Scott report, she deftly suggested that it must have been written only by lowly press officers, who are not members of her union.

She has gone into purdah since the announcement of her elevation last week, refusing to discuss her future in the Lords because coming out as a Labour politician causes some embarrassment in the remaining months of her FDA job. A union colleague said: "She was finding it increasingly hard to maintain neutrality and not reveal her pro-Labour stance." She might find life easier in the Lords, he suggested. She is not made of the very hardest platinum. She would, he claimed, get into a flap every year over elections to the TUC General Council - of which she is a member.

Although generally admired - if somewhat jealously - by colleagues, the curious status of her union has drawn anger, too. She fought off many merger proposals, as a group of civil service unions recently rolled up into one - the Public Service, Tax and Commerce Union.

But old axes grind on: sitting on the Council of Civil Service Unions, she drew their wrath over a national strike in 1993, called to protest at market testing - the galloping privatisation of large chunks of the civil service. They all had a showdown meeting with Mr Waldegrave, then civil service minister. But her fellow union leaders were outraged and embarrassed when he read out a private letter Liz Symons had sent him saying the FDA was not against market testing in principle and that it was a "perfectly acceptable policy". Said one present at that meeting: "It was a major sell-out. The axe was falling on our members, not on the FDA. These were our members' jobs she was selling out."

With a hint of relish, he added: "But things changed later. Kenneth Clarke suddenly noticed that although civil service numbers had been cut by a third, the number of Grade 3s - her members - had actually increased. Fewer staff were being managed by more managers. So then the axe began to fall on her members, too, delayering at the top, and then she squeaked."

IN THE Lords she is expected to become a formidable advocate for constitutional change and reform of the processes of government. Some observers last week were hoping that her elevation means Mr Blair is serious about his desire to reform the machinery of government radically. But once free of the shackles of her duty to her cautious and conservative members, it will be interesting to see how radical she really is. Some fear she may be too imbued since birth with the arcane and byzantine reasoning of the civil service, too used to defending its citadels.

But there is little doubt that she fits the mould of New Labour like an elegant glove. She is a member of the inner coterie, a friend of Peter Mandelson and even of the Blairs. She breathes the same intellectual air, she looks and talks the part, the very symbol of Labour's new bright women. The more the old guard of the carthorse tendency grumble about her elevation, the more Mr Blair probably thinks that he has made a sharp acquisition.