Leading Article: The card of Congress House

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The Independent Online
Norman Willis, the general secretary of the TUC, who announced yesterday that he would not be stampeded into immediate retirement, might best be regarded as the Mr Machin of Congress House. This is not an unworthy role. Mr Machin, the hero of Arnold Bennett's novel The Card, was, it will be recalled, dedicated to 'the great cause of cheering us all up'. Mr Willis, who will crack a joke or burst into a music hall ditty at the slightest provocation, was one of the few sources of humour at TUC headquarters during the past decade of declining power and membership, when the trade union movement was in dire need of cheering up.

Many of the union leaders who meet in Blackpool next week for their annual conference have, however, come to the view that Mr Willis is congenitally incapable of providing much more than a good laugh by way of leadership, and that a ready wit is not nearly enough for the Nineties. This belief was graphically underlined when the New Statesman & Society announced the results of an anonymous survey of union leaders invited to judge the performances of their fellows. Mr Willis came 21st out of 22 general secretaries polled.

The TUC leader's critics are right to want him out - though this is not to belittle the role played by Mr Willis since he took office during the miners' strike of 1984. During the years of unrelenting hostility from Margaret Thatcher's administration, the best the TUC could hope for was a general secretary who would not alienate public opinion. Now the TUC has to cope with something worse than hostility - indifference. Unlike her predecessors, Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Employment, has made it clear that she has no particular interest either in further legislation to reform the unions, or in building bridges to the TUC. She regards it as a humbled irrelevance whose continued decline is almost inevitable. The fact that the TUC conference agenda contains little of interest endorses that view.

The TUC's new crisis is one of purpose. It is a function of the changing nature of both national government and trade unions. If these changes are not recognised, the TUC is almost certainly doomed. From 1939 to 1979 the TUC had two tasks. It was one body in an increasingly corporatist system of government and it was the powerhouse of a movement composed of many dozens of small or medium-sized unions.

Corporatism is gone beyond recall, while mergers are gradually producing a handful of superunions that will embrace the overwhelming majority of union members. This year the electricians and the engineers merged. Next year the three main public sector unions, Nupe, Nalgo and Cohse, will come together. The Transport and General Workers' Union and the general union, GMB, are flirting discreetly.

Such giants are well able to look after their own research, lobbying and public relations. They can provide or purchase education and training for their members and offer them the benefits of service union, including cheap insurance, mortgages and car purchase. To affiliate a major union to the TUC costs well over pounds 1m a year. Resentment about such inflated bills is growing. If Mr Willis has no plan for dealing with the crisis, how does he propose to spend the next six years?