Have Labour's parents had enough?

Like a stroppy teenager, the PM talks to the unions only when he needs his pocket money

Large cheques will be signed during the next few months by some of Britain's toughest negotiators, professionals who make a living striking deals and extracting commitments from reluctant employers. The total raised is expected to add up to around £8m, a considerable sum, although admittedly down on the £9m the same group collected four years ago.

We are talking about the trade unions and their response to Labour's traditional pre-election whip-round. Tony Blair has gone on a charm offensive (organised by Margaret McDonagh, the party's general secretary, and Sally Morgan, the No 10 political secretary, neither of whom is exactly famed for dispensing goodwill) to persuade union general secretaries to part with their members' money. Roger Lyons, the leader of MSF, was even treated, ahead of Euro 2000, to dinner at Chequers with the England coach, Kevin Keegan, and the actress Helen Mirren. Gone, all of a sudden, are the Downing Street lectures urging union leaders to put their own house in order and stay out of Labour Party affairs.

On 5 June, his first day back in Downing Street after his fortnight with little Leo, Blair had a private meeting (both Downing Street and the TUC agreed to keep stum) with John Monks, the general secretary of the TUC, and Brendan Barber, his deputy. That it took place on such a busy day underlines the importance Blair now attaches to restoring good relations with the unions. Pat Macfadden, a political fixer admired by the unions, has been switched from No 10 to Millbank to soothe ruffled feathers, and Downing Street is spinning that Blair is prepared to accept union amendments at next month's national policy forum in Exeter to show he is not a control freak.

The U-turn owes everything to harsh financial realities. Now that the love affair with big business is over, well-heeled executives are proving reluctant to part with their cash. The government has been throwing honours around like confetti, so most of those who want gongs to impress the neighbours have already got them. Other executives, knowing that those handing over more than £5,000 risk being publicly shamed if a cash-for-favours scandal is uncovered, have concluded that it is just not worth the hassle.

So Blair needs his old union sparring partners if he is to rent the battle bus, hire the advertising hoardings and revive Millbank's rebuttal, attack and propaganda units. But the unions are proving unexpectedly coy. Where once new Labour questioned the value of the party-union link, now the unions themselves question it. The Communications Workers' Union conference in Bournemouth defied its leadership by rejecting a proposed 2p-a-week increase in the political levy to raise an extra £200,000. It then threatened to end all support if ministers privatised any part of the Post Office. In the same hall a week later, a local government worker from Kirklees in Yorkshire received a standing ovation from Unison delegates when he denounced the union's bankrolling of the Labour Party as a waste of money.

Andy Gilchrist, who recently succeeded Ken Cameron as general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, says that, after staffing cuts imposed by Labour local authorities and threats to pay and conditions backed by the Home Secretary, it is easier to fight fires than to persuade station crews that the union should back Labour. "I'd be lying if I didn't admit there was pressure to disaffiliate," says Gilchrist. "The members were told in 1997 by brigade officials to vote Labour and bought it. Now they've got the same brigade officials telling them this Labour government is a load of old crap. The government and Labour councils aren't doing us or themselves any favours."

The TGWU's Bill Morris, who chairs the Labour liaison committee, and the GMB's John Edmonds, the chair of the trustees of the general election fund, have encountered reluctance within their own unions, as well as others, as they count the pounds.

Public sector unions oppose the back-door privatisation of public services under the private finance initiative; manufacturing feels neglected as the high pound cripples industry; rail privatisation is unreversed and the London Tube is heading for the private sector. Union leaders applaud the minimum wage and new employment legislation, but they also remember how they had to fight harder than the CBI for every concession, and that, while the bosses entered No 10 by the front door, they went in by the back.

The best (perhaps the only) card Blair has left to play is the prospect of an alternative government. "We do not like him," confessed one general secretary, "but we hate William Hague." Gilchrist says: "The Conservatives are too terrible to contemplate, but we have people saying that if the Tories got in, it would teach Blair a lesson. That tells you how cheesed off they are."

What do union members paying £6 a year to Labour as an affiliated member get? Influence? The British Medical Association and the Royal College of Nursing enjoy far more clout over health policy than Unison, which represents more NHS workers and pours a fortune into Labour's coffers.The right-wing press may de-monise the unions as Labour's paymasters. The reality is that, in this case, they who pay the piper do not call the tune; rather, they are expected to dance for the piper.

Monks admitted a year after the election that union leaders were made to feel like "embarrassing elderly relatives" in their dealings with ministers. A more apt metaphor would have Blair in the role of stroppy teenager, with the unions as put-upon parents. Ungrateful and resentful, he is nice only when he wants his pocket money. Give him a lift and he insists on being dropped off round the corner so that no one can see who drove him.

So perhaps it is time for the unions to consider telling the party they gave birth to a century ago that it should leave home and go its own way. The move would be popular with a growing number of members and allow general secretaries to deal with the government openly and honestly.

Before Ken Cameron retired as leader of the FBU, he raised precisely this possibility at last September's annual TUC congress. The Prime Minister wrote a couple of verses which, as well as suggesting that poetry was not his strong point at Fettes, betrayed his uneasiness at Cameron's proposal. "You're welcome now in Number 10/But no beer today, just tea/And amid the change there is bound to be/A call for the link to end./What staggers me is the call should come/ From the left-wing firebrand Ken." The Prime Minister added: "Ken, I thought your job was to put out the fires, not start them."

Union membership is up, the Labour Party's is down. Which one is the liability now?

Kevin Maguire writes for the Guardian