The New Statesman Interview - Bill Morris

In gentle sorrow rather than anger, he laments that, under Labour, the employers have had all the fa

It says something about the single-mindedness (or perhaps narrow-mindedness) of new Labour that Bill Morris was ever regarded as the enemy. Back in 1995 (which seems like another century, and soon will be), the general secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union was on the wrong side in the Clause Four controversy. Jack Dromey, Harriet Harman's husband, challenged Morris for the union leadership, which was itself a rare event; a victory for the challenger would have been unprecedented but Dromey lost, albeit with more than a third of the vote. Harsh words were exchanged, with Dromey accusing Morris of being "out of touch" and a threat to Labour's chances of election.

Yet Morris, now 60, is a man of moderate views, moderately expressed. He can reasonably claim to have been a "moderniser" before the term became fashionable, organising a conference on Clinton economics in 1993, using outside consultants to streamline his union and earning such enmity from some left-wing sections of the TGWU that they backed Dromey rather than him in the election. He opposed reform of Clause Four reluctantly, on instructions from his executive. Even after his triumph over Dromey and, by extension, Tony Blair, Morris would only say, with characteristic blandness and amiability, that the Labour leader was "a much-loved and respected TGWU member".

So when Morris summons the editor of the New Statesman, ushers him into his chauffeur-driven car and takes him to a posh London restaurant (relax, union watchdogs, I paid the bill) in order to list his complaints against a Labour government, we should regard it as the rough equivalent of Rodney Bickerstaffe issuing a fatwa against all the occupants of No 10. It was the day after a prime ministerial speech which seemed to promise the abolition of the proletariat and its replacement by a wholly middle-class society within a decade (see Roy Hattersley, page 25) but Morris didn't think much of that. "We shouldn't be talking about social classes, but about employment opportunities, the health service, teaching to the highest possible standard, the levels of crime and racism in our society. Socio-economic measurement is a very superficial yardstick of the quality of people's lives and the opportunities they have. To say we want to expand the middle classes: that's a narrow debate, a sterile debate." As for the Third Way, Morris said that he didn't really understand it and, in any case, it wasn't the sort of thing his members discussed; it was just something for the chattering classes.

What, I asked, had his members got out of this government? Morris listed the social chapter, the minimum wage and the working time directive which would benefit, he was careful to say, some of his members. Further, the Fairness at Work white paper represented "at the minimum, a statement of intent by the government to create a workplace that is fairer and better managed".

And then he got on with it. He summed up what he wanted to say in two sentences, repeated several times at dictation speed, just to make sure that the tape recorder got it down: "We were promised, before the election, fairness not favours. Well, we haven't had the fairness, but the employers have certainly had the favours." He then went into the details. For example, the requirement in Fairness at Work that, if a union is to be recognised, those supporting it in a workplace ballot must amount to at least 40 per cent of the total workforce (rather than 50 per cent of those voting): this, Morris says, "asks us to accept a threshold level that is unique to any democratic institution and it can't be fair". Equally unfair was the exemption of companies employing fewer than 20 people from the recognition legislation; and the proposal that protection against unfair dismissal should begin only after a year's employment.

Morris moved on to the question of protection for those who take lawful industrial action. Until now, Britain has had no right to strike. Morris quotes the case of a catering company where 400 workers "had an issue, exhausted the procedures, gave proper notice, all 100 per cent to the letter of the law, and they went on strike for just one day, one day only, and they were still dismissed". The Fairness at Work proposals would put a stop to that, but would still allow employers to dismiss workers who had been on lawful strike for eight weeks. So employers will have an incentive to sit out a strike and the view that a long stoppage could ruin an employer before it ruins a worker, with his mortgage repayments and credit card debts, is one that could only have come from the bosses. "It is a charter for employers to frustrate people's rights," Morris said.

He turned to the working time directive. "This is a piece of protective legislation; it's supposed to be needed for safety. If we need a directive, I don't then see the logic of turning round to people and saying: you can opt out of it. Employers will simply say: well, you can insist on a 48-hour week if you like but look at that chart of the unemployment figures on the wall."

He had put all this to ministers? "Yes, we've had lots of meetings. One thing you can't accuse this government of is denial of access." And ministers hadn't listened? "Yes, they listened but, you see, the employers seem to have more than one door to No 10 and we have only the front door."

He continued: "We have the most flexible labour market of any country in the European Union. British workers have delivered flexibility, they have delivered productivity, they have delivered mobility, they have delivered all that's been asked of them. But still they don't have proper employment protection."

So what would be the result? "We have elections coming up: Euro-elections, Scotland, Wales. I think it will be very difficult to go into the workplace and to motivate our members to work for the government." Might the TGWU make some big gesture, such as severing its links with the Labour Party or withholding funds? "No, if something's wrong with a relationship, you don't break it, you look for what's wrong and try to put it right." I thought this answer very characteristic of Morris who, as a union leader, has never issued idle threats and has preferred understatement. But what, I asked, if a woman was married to a man who persistently had affairs with other people? Surely she wouldn't put up with it indefinitely? "Sometimes," replied Morris, "you have to stay together for the sake of the children." And, pleased with this answer, he repeated it, and laughed.

So that was Bill Morris, trade union leader, on a Labour government. But we also want to hear from Bill Morris, black general secretary, the only one in the trade union movement, on race relations. This is a subject on which he might be expected to hold strong views. Some shamefully racist abuse flew around the TGWU when he was initially elected in 1991, again despite opposition from the Labour leadership. And when one of his sons was very small the local authority wanted to categorise him as educationally subnormal and send him to a special school. Morris dug in his heels and was ready to keep the boy out of school but, moving house a few yards, got himself into the catchment area of a more sympathetic mainstream school. The boy went on to university and took a degree.

But beyond a few mild complaints about stereotyping, Morris is as moderate in his language on race as he is on most other subjects. The education system? "A wonderful system; it offers a wonderful amount of opportunity." Race relations? "I'm very optimistic, very hopeful. It's a generational issue."

He tells me about the TGWU's plan to ask its members to classify themselves by ethnic background so that, probably by 2002, it will have a black and Asian section on its executive, elected by black and Asian members only, rather as women are elected now. I suggested that this might accentuate racial divisions rather than heal them, that some critics would see it as a step to apartheid. "No," he replied. "Apart from me, we have only one black person on the executive and we are the only ones who've been elected in the union's 75 years. You have to have a leadership of the union that looks like the membership of the union, just as America has a government - I'm not just talking about the cabinet - that looks like the people of that country."

So he was talking about a quota system? "No, a representative system. A quota is an arbitrary figure, where you can't move up or down; a representative system means you can move up or down, depending on fluctuations." I found the distinction unconvincing, so I rephrased the question. How far would he go down the American road of affirmative action? "It's not a matter for legislation; it's for organisations to work out for themselves." But did he think a university would benefit from affirmative action? "They have academic criteria for entry based on academic standards. I have no problem with any of that."

This is a good example of how talking to Bill Morris is a bit like playing a game of tennis wholly from the baseline. Somehow, you can never quite get to the net, forcing a gaffe, an indiscretion, or even an exceptional opinion. But that, I think, says more about us than about him. He has been black all his life, a trade unionist most of it. He is a member of two minorities, either of which, if it says a word out of place, risks being pilloried in the Daily Mail and similar quarters. His tone is one of gentle sorrow rather than anger and, though he may think himself sorely provoked by new Labour, it is not likely to change.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 22 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Goodbye to all that boiled cabbage