The New Statesman Interview - John Edmonds

"Among public sector workers, there is a feeling of a build-up to an eruption." John Edmonds intervi

John Edmonds has lost some weight; he looks in fine form after a summer of playing cricket and preparing for the forthcoming conference for trade unions. I make this observation right away, for the leader of the mighty GMB union was not best pleased with the way he was depicted in an NS cartoon when he was interviewed a year ago. "I am not that fat," he said to me, not entirely in jest, after the magazine had appeared. Twelve months later and Edmonds is endearingly self-deprecating. "God, how I wish that had been the least flattering picture of me. God, how I wish."

The exchange typifies Edmonds' style. His answers tend to be multi-layered. Those responses that appear to praise the government, for example, often, on reflection, condemn it. In this particular case, Edmonds mocks himself and the way he is portrayed, but he also means what he says: God, how he wishes that he had the photogenic qualities that his strenuous attempts to lose weight should bring about.

This equivocal quality is reflected in his expectations for the forthcoming TUC annual conference. Edmonds believes that the relationship between the unions and the government has been "clarified" over the past 12 months. "We get very good access to ministers, but we have to prove every case we put, several times over. If only we were given the same benefit of the doubt as, for example, small business leaders, there would be no problem. But I would say the situation with us is not just no favours from the government, but no benefit of the doubt whatsoever."

His reaction to this clearly defined relationship is revealing. He has become one of the more outspoken union leaders, much more so than Bill Morris of the TGWU, who is increasingly "on message". Evidently he resents the way ministers are more wary of unions than even business leaders are. But he does not express any unsubtle anger that could be swatted away with ease by the government. "I feel relief, actually. Trade unions are a pragmatic lot and at least we now know where we stand. Once you know you're not going to get the benefit of the doubt, you make much more effort to win the arguments. With this government, deals tend to be done in the media, rather than behind closed doors or even in front of closed doors. The good thing about this is that we have to develop our case in the media as well, which reminds the government - and, indeed, ourselves - that we are publicly accountable organisations. The downside is that every argument has to be aimed at one audience, the swing voters. This has already brought real problems for the government in the debate over welfare reform."

On one issue he remains unequivocal. "On public sector pay I really do have a feeling of counting down towards big trouble. The wages of public sector workers are shaved a little bit each year, although they have been given a lot more responsibilities. Morale is very bad. Morale in the NHS is so bad people are trying to leave. What is less known is that morale in local government is very low. I should add that anyone who appears to criticise public sector workers is adding unnecessary damage on top of the considerable damage already done. After all, public service workers only have to look at their pay packets to see whether they are valued or not."

He does not mention Tony Blair by name, but it is pretty clear who he has in mind. What did he think of Blair's comment last July that he bore the "scars on his back" for attempting to reform the public sector? "He was very tired. It's best to turn the page and forget it."

At which point he makes a very significant warning from a political perspective. "Public sector workers get a very bad deal and know it. The government has got the electoral cycle wrong here. It's got it right in terms of managing the economy, but I don't think the build-up to trouble in the public sector is very clever."

Cautiously, he continues: "Unless there is a decent set of public service settlements next spring, the possibility of traditional trouble is there." Yes, but what does he mean by "traditional trouble"? Finally he spells it out: "The threat of industrial action is definitely there, which could involve teachers, local authority workers, ancillary workers in the health services, who are some of the poorest paid in Britain (although they are more likely to look for other jobs than take industrial action), the ambulance service. I don't know whether there will be an eruption or when precisely, but there is a feeling of a build-up to an eruption. It would be disastrous for everyone if the government ignored the feeling because no one wants a return to widespread industrial action, especially close to an election."

He wants public sector workers to win pay settlements above the rate of inflation and believes that should be a much higher priority for ministers than "sexier electoral benefits" such as tax cuts.

But Edmonds' distinctive pitch at the TUC conference will not relate to public sector pay. Instead he will focus on the single currency. In recent years, there have been no significant debates on the euro at the Labour Party conference, nor at the TUC. This will make his intervention especially interesting. At the very least, it will be a novelty to hear the case for the euro being advanced with some passion, as Edmonds intends to do.

"I look at it from the perspective of my members. We've had a desperate time in areas such as clothing and engineering. Everywhere I go, the message is that our currency is overvalued by 25 per cent. There have been spectacular closures across the whole range of manufacturing industry. Our interest rates are nearly twice as high as on the Continent. This is a very big trade-union issue. The government has failed to provide the lead and the Tory right has grabbed control of the agenda. The Labour case for the euro has gone by default."

The unions are by no means united on the issue. The TUC general secretary, John Monks, is an enthusiast, but wants to avoid moving too far ahead of the government's position. Bill Morris, too, supports the "wait and see" approach, while several union leaders are opposed altogether. Edmonds wants to prepare now now to join in 2002.

I remind him that John Prescott had been dismissive of union calls for early entry, speaking of "egos" getting in the way of policy. As he did with Blair's comments about public sector workers, Edmonds puts Prescott's remarks down to exhaustion: "I don't know the context. He was off on his holidays and it may have been an indication of tiredness. The idea that trade unions should not talk about issues like this is bizarre."

Often Edmonds seeks to praise the government, but in a manner that will almost certainly make it uneasy. He sees changes, for example, since Labour's appalling performance in the European election results. "This government never says it will change policies; it just goes ahead and changes them. I get the impression that after the summer they are going to do a lot more to address the disadvantaged. They are changing the policies and priorities without having to admit it."

He is complimentary about Gordon Brown - now that the Chancellor's former press secretary, Charlie Whelan, is no longer in the Treasury. "Trade unions used to meet Gordon, and stories about what he was going to say used to appear in the newspapers before we had got in the room. It may be due to the absence of certain people, but this year we have had good meetings, which haven't been reported in detail. Certainly they haven't been reported in detail before they had taken place."

In my view, the ambiguity in Edmonds' answers reflects his own continuing uncertainty about how to play this complex government. Does he want to be a leading critic or a supporter who is closely involved in policy-making? I suspect he would like to be both, but it is a difficult balancing act, especially when the government does not welcome internal dissent.

He stresses that much of his time is spent going around the country attracting new members and ensuring they are effectively represented. This, he claims, is much more of a priority than the high politics that get him into the newspapers.

If Edmonds has yet to hit upon a clearly defined role in relation to the government, he is by no means alone. Every summer, the media speculates that there will be blood on the carpet at the annual TUC conference. Despite a great deal of huffing and puffing from union leaders in the weeks leading up to the event, the gathering itself always turns out to be as docile as an old-fashioned Conservative Party conference. I remind him that, before last year's conference, we were told that Eddie George (a guest speaker) would be given a rough reception. In fact, he was warmly received and even his mediocre jokes raised polite guffaws.

"The tone will be much more candid this year. Now there are issues of considerable concern to the government and they are going to be expressed." I suggest that union leaders were saying that a year ago as well. "Oh yes. Well, I was chairman of the conference last year. It was in my interest for the mood to be nice and gentle." He smiles, but he is only half joking.