From the Government's point of view, the event softened a confrontational image hewn in the Thatcher years. Yet Mr Hunt's visit to the TUC should not be mistaken for a sudden reversal of Conservative attitudes to trade unions. Ministerial rhetoric during the rail dispute leaves little room for doubt. Downing Street has no regrets about 15 years of legislation that has undermined the ability of unions to organise, strike, protect their assets and raise money.
This reality lies behind the boycott of yesterday's meeting by union purists. But Arthur Scargill, John Edmonds and Bill Morris were foolish to miss the conference. They will have to wait indefinitely if they intend to stand aloof until the Tories repent. In the meantime they render themselves irrelevant during a period when they might exercise some influence over Government policies.
Realists such as John Monks, the new TUC general secretary, recognise that there is much to be gained from entering a dialogue with the Government. Mr Monks has a difficult task holding together an uncertain movement. Too friendly an approach to the Government could lead to the creation of a breakaway superunion. But he remains determined, as he said, to 'eke out common ground'.
The opportunities open to the TUC lie less in changing ministerial minds than in having a say in what the Government is likely to do anyway. With unemployment high on the political agenda there will be chances for unions to help shape training initiatives over which they currently have little influence.
Although there is a philosophical gulf about how to approach unemployment, there is room for discussion. Union ideas on tax cuts for the low paid and job subsidies would receive a more sympathetic hearing than in the past. Likewise, help for working mothers is on Government and union agendas. These policies would do more to cut the dole queues than would union insistence on the minimum wage, which benefits their working members at the expense of the unemployed.
An alternative to dialogue is for union leaders is to wallow in their alienation from government until Labour returns to office. Yet it is clear that a Labour government will not repeal anti-union laws. Tony Blair's performance as employment spokesman and his leadership campaign offer scant hope of that. The most on offer to the unions from a Blair-led Labour government would probably be new rights of recognition for unions in the workplace, better employment protection and the introduction of a minimum wage.
The best option, as Mr Monks has realised, is to nurture relations with other parties. Ironically, a by- product would be to loosen links with Labour and so make the trade unions' party a little more electable.Reuse content