They’ve never had it so good

16 Sep 05
ROBERT SHRIMSLEY | Some time soon, Gordon Brown will start meeting with trade union leaders to secure their support for his leadership bid.

Some time soon, Gordon Brown will start meeting with trade union leaders to secure their support for his leadership bid.

Who am I kidding? The meetings have probably been going on for years.

At the root of the discussions‚ however elliptical‚ will be a key equation for the union leaders. The calculation will be a measure of the certainty of a Brown succession over the demands they can legitimately make of him as the price of their support. The greater the probability of success, the more they will have to judge how far they can afford to alienate the chancellor with shrill demands for undeliverable policies.

One can hardly blame trade unionists, schooled in the arts of collective bargaining, for upping the ante in advance of detailed negotiations. But the first salvos from the TUC annual conference suggest less a predictably high opening bid than a genuine belief that a new union settlement is required.

After eight years of trying ‘fairness, not favours’ under Tony Blair, today trade union leaders seem to have decided that they would rather have the favours after all.

The demands this week for a return to the days of secondary action, for the unions to cripple companies unrelated to the cause of disputes, showed a movement leadership wholly out of touch with the zeitgeist of Britain and any sense of what a Labour government can plausibly offer without lapsing into unelectability.

Speech after speech celebrated the imminent demise of New Labour, demanding an end to the ‘betrayal’ of working people, seemingly oblivious to just how much of their agenda has been delivered.

Many voters are not old enough to remember the days of Grunwick picket lines but they are all old enough to recall the fuel disputes of 2000.

Indeed, were any able to forget them, there have been some timely reminders this week. Brown has not forgotten them either, the only time since coming to power when Labour fell behind the Conservatives in the opinion polls. It also marked a humiliating retreat by the chancellor in the face of pure people power‚ and we all know how much Brown enjoys being forced to climb down.

Now, he might have written a book on the Red Clydesiders and feel the lifeblood of the party’s union history coursing through his veins. But he is not about to wreck the premiership he has waited so long to secure by agreeing to roll back the Thatcherite union reforms that most of this country still believes were necessary.

He is also astute enough to know that squeals of anger from unions at a Labour government not giving them all they demand are reassuring to the rest of the electorate.

Back in the early 1990s, when the Labour movement was so hungry for power it was ready to do what was necessary to prove its suitability for office, party leaders and the union movement grasped that a new relationship was required and had the vision to deliver it.

As a result, the union movement has won a minimum wage, new rights at work, a government committed to low unemployment and much more.

Now, however, the unions have grown restless at fiscal responsibility; angry at the notion of a government prepared to raise the pension age, and ready to listen to business. Those like T&G general secretary Tony Woodley seem to expect the government to unravel an entire industrial concordat that has brought economic success to business and the country.

In one sense, none of this matters. Brown will do what he has to do to win the leadership and then govern as he believes is right. Speaking this week at the conference, the chancellor made clear his wish to work with the unions but also his determination not to work for them. So it may not matter to Brown, but it does matter for a union movement fighting against falling membership and dwindling funds.

This week has seen much talk of a new super-union, the merger of Amicus, the T&G and the GMB. But this new union, as Brendan Barber, the Trades Union Congress general secretary, has noted, will not deliver a single new member to the movement.

There are times when the union movement gets its finger on the pulse — as when it put itself in the forefront of the fight over pensions. That is the union movement leading; talking the language of its rank and file; and demonstrating its continued relevance in the modern world.

By the next election, with the creation of the super-union, there will be only two or three union leaders of any consequence to the wider economy. They can continue to place themselves at the edge of the new Labour tent and wait for a return of the Tories to restore their ideological purity. Or they can work with a government they like less than they wish, to advance the cause of their members.

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