LEADING ARTICLE: Who's afraid of Rodney?

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You can't say we didn't tell you. Usually only a foolish person would confidently predict the result of a democratic election three years before it is held. Nevertheless, at the end of October 1992 this newspaper said that Rodney Bickerstaffe would become general secretary of Unison, the giant public-sector union, by 1996. And (as Harold Wilson used to say) so it proved. Yesterday it was announced that Mr Bickerstaffe had romped home, getting nearly half the votes in a four- horse race. Some 22 per cent of the union's membership had voted - not too bad by historic standards. So congratulations, Rodney.

But does it matter? It has, after all, become a conventional wisdom that unions ain't what they were. Neutered by Margaret Thatcher's legislation, rendered obsolete by the growing privatisation of the relationship between employer and employee and increasingly marginalised even within the Labour Party, the unions are (according to this view) a busted flush - a remnant of an earlier industrial age. So Mr B may cajole or threaten, but he is relatively harmless.

Conventional though this wisdom may be, much of it is sound. Unison, despite declarations about being part of the modern world, has steadfastly opposed each and every government change in the health service. It has frequently been obstructive when local authorities have tried to make their services more consumer-friendly. Within the Labour Party itself, history threatens to pass it by: the union opposed the dumping of Clause IV. In the election for the general secretaryship of this major union, the victor's opponents were two ultra-leftists and an anti-abortionist - testimony to the shallowness of the union's gene pool. Mr Bickerstaffe was, in truth, the best of a pretty poor bunch.

Despite his own doughty advocacy of the minimum wage - which may well bear fruit after the next election - Mr Bickerstaffe himself has said and done little to engage with the concerns of the consumers of the services his members provide. His attention is turned inwards, to the demands of his activists over pay and jobs; not outwards, to establishing a relationship with the voters. Unlike the TUC's general secretary, John Monks, Mr Bickerstaffe seems relatively unaffected by new thinking. He is a leader of the old school, a product of a declining culture.

This does not mean that he will gradually fade away, however. The next 18 months could well see the election of the first Labour government in 17 years. Such a government will face massive problems in delivering on its priorities while maintaining a staunch anti-inflationary stance. At the very least, it is likely to continue with many of the present government's policies - but if it is to succeed in its own terms, it will need to undertake further reform of the public services. Under these circumstances, a declaration of outright war by the public-sector unions on a government lacking experience and self-confidence could help to derail its programme and destroy its viability.

Unlike 1992, this is not a prediction, for Rodney has it at least partially within his power to stop it coming true.