Several steps ahead for the union dues

September 5, 1997

I WILL always remember the morning that Leon Brittan resigned from the Cabinet over the Westland affair. It was a marvellous occasion ripe with drama and intrigue. The great, the good and the bag carriers were assembled in the Royal Society of Arts off the Strand for the launch of Industry Year 1986 - the latest in a long line of failed attempts to boost manufacturing.

Norman Willis, then general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, told one of the best jokes of his career, on that occasion. I still do not know whether he rehearsed them or not, but the best were truly superb. And, coincidentally, I met my future boss, too - John Edmonds, then newly elected as leader of the GMB union.

That morning even I realised that either Brittan, then secretary of state for trade and industry, would have to resign that day over the leaking of the solicitor general's letter or Mrs Thatcher would. But I thought it was not going to be her. Brittan, you may recall, had done his boss's bidding but had forgotten to make sure that some of the blood was also on her hands. So, he had to go. With delight, the beleaguered general secretary of the TUC, leader of the enemy within, rose to speak. Turning to Brittan he said: "What a pleasure it is to speak on this platform this morning. It reminds me of my favourite quote from the Koran, 'Have faith in Allah, but tie up your camel first'."

Thus, I was taught the first law of industrial politics. And to my mind, that law remains the best advice to the trade unions in their continuing relations with the Labour party. The sentiment should, if they are wise, underpin the TUC, which opens the conference season in Brighton next week. The last time congress met under a Labour government was in Brighton in 1978. The delegates there rejected the government's pay-norm, and the following day the prime minister, James Callaghan, told them there was not going to be an election that autumn. The Winter of Discontent followed and after that, of course, we had 18 years of Conservative government which changed the country forever. Neither Callaghan nor the unions had tethered their proverbial camels.

As they meet now, the relationship is different. On the one hand, Tony Blair has made much electoral capital out of his strategy of distancing and, at times, attacking the unions - perhaps appeasing the electorate. On the other hand, the protection that unions provide particularly in times of job insecurity, is popular in today's flexible labour market. In any event, the unions still fund the Labour party.

The strategy towards the unions seems designed to provoke rather than distance. It is through the angry reaction of union leaders that the electorate is convinced the relationship has altered. "It must be hurting if they're wailing" was how one Labour communications expert explained it to me. However, this is the Government and a new strategy must be found.

As far as the unions' judgement on the Government goes, the jury is still out. On the positive side they are looking forward to the Social Chapter and are pleased by progress on the minimum wage. On the downside they are frustrated by the delayed abolition of the hated "Check-Off" laws and over the promises about union recognition. The Prime Minister, they think, is keeping them waiting, possibly with next year's pay round in mind.

The relationship between the Labour party and the unions is now more of a two-way street. And if the unions do become more independent they will enjoy the advantages; one being the ability to stick up for their members without having to worry about blind loyalty to the party.

Phil Woolas is MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth. Between 1991 and 1997 he was head of communications at the GMB. and from 1985-86 president of the National Union of Students.

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