Backroom boy to step forward to take centre stage at the TUC

By Barrie Clement,Labour Editor
Monday 16 December 2002 01:00

A new leader of Britain's seven million trade unionists will be chosen this week, at a time of unprecedented tension in relations between the Labour Government and the union movement.

The man who will step into the shoes of John Monks, the general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, will be Brendan Barber, a union "fixer" who has worked for the Trades Union Congress since 1975.

Mr Barber, the deputy general secretary, has been at the centre of the present conflict between the Cabinet and the labour movement. He has been leading attempts to broker a deal between the Government and the Fire Brigades Union, which is still threatening to hold strikes over pay.

Mr Barber will have a tough act to follow. Mr Monks showed considerable resilience during the winter that was visited on unions during the Conservative era and has been adept at influencing a Labour government that has sought in public to keep the TUC at a distance.

Born on Merseyside, Mr Barber was a skilful operator in the backrooms of Congress House, drawing up policy documents, seeking to unite warring unions and placating egotistical union general secretaries.

It is not known how someone who has been a backroom boy will adapt to the high-profile role, which requires eloquence, diplomacy and sure-footedness.

Mr Barber's succession to the trade union throne – via the deployment of union block votes – could eventually clear the way for the first female TUC general secretary. Frances O'Grady, a senior official at Congress House, is expected to win the backing of left-wing unions when the post next becomes available. The left has supported Mr Barber, who is on the centre right, and will expect to influence the succession next time.

Mr Barber was brought up in a Borstal because his father worked in the institution. He launched into union politics as president of the students' union at the City University in London.

His first post at the TUC was in the organisation and industrial relations department. From 1979 to 1983 he was the TUC's head of press and information, where he earned a reputation for loyalty. He was appointed TUC deputy general secretary in 1993 after Mr Monks took the top job.

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