The New Statesman Interview - Bill Morris
Normally genial, he is now in a fury - against fellow union leaders who want to rush ministers into
''Bill wants to talk about the euro. Obviously, he will talk about lots of things, but he is especially keen to talk about the euro." That is what I was told in advance of my interview with the general secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union.
I am wary of such advance briefings at the TGWU. One of Morris's press officers once informed me excitedly that his boss wanted to vent his anger in a broadcast interview with me over the government's welfare reforms. On air, he sounded more enthusiastic about the policies than the Secretary of State for Social Security, Alistair Darling. Morris has become a new Labour evangelist who supported, even, the tough spending curbs in the government's early years.
But the adviser proves to be right. The normally genial Morris is, indeed, worked up about the euro. He is, as far as it is possible for him, in something of a fury over the issue. His target is not the government. He is close to Gordon Brown, and on several issues has adopted Brown's language in advocating a case. No, in Morris's view, it is not Brown that is the problem. Some of the other trade union leaders are the problem, those who are more enthusiastic about the euro than himself. Often, he is evasively diplomatic but, on this, he is uncharacteristically blunt.
"Some trade union leaders could lose the referendum for the government when the time comes. Those who seem to want us to go in here and now, at any price, are playing a very dangerous game. The government is best placed to lead the debate on the euro. We mustn't give the impression it can be decided in a ten-minute debate at next week's Congress."
Why does he think the behaviour of some trade union leaders, now, could lose the referendum for the government at some future date? "Some of my colleagues are saying that, if we don't join now, four million jobs will be lost. They are preaching doom and gloom. What credibility will they have in two or three years' time if the government calls a referendum and their forecasts are shown to have been wrong? The quicker we get back to reality, the better."
For Morris, that reality is the government's position of joining when it is in Britain's interests to do so - most specifically, when Britain has converged with the existing euro economies. But Morris seems to be on the sceptical wing of that conveniently flexible policy formula. When I quote John Edmonds, the GMB leader, who is an advocate of early entry, Morris displays a wariness towards the euro that borders on hostility. Edmonds has pointed out that the high pound is destroying jobs and layers of manufacturing industry. For Edmonds, joining the euro addresses this problem. It is a view shared by one or two other big unions and the TUC general secretary, John Monks.
"I don't understand those who are running down the pound in this debate. There's nothing wrong with the pound. It is the euro that is the problem. Let us not forget that we do a significant amount of trade with the United States, and when you place the pound against the dollar there is no problem. These people are attacking the managers of our economy, but for six months our rates have been stable, while the European Central Bank has raised the rates six times in ten months. And we're fighting to join that?"
He goes further. "Our economy is not at the point of convergence. If we followed the arguments of some trade unionists, there would be a huge reduction in public spending to reduce interest rates, which would mean huge cuts in public services. If I had been arguing for my members to be paid in euros, I would have been, in effect, arguing for them to get a 25 per cent pay cut. I don't understand trade union leaders making these claims on behalf of their members."
We are speaking on the day that David Owen launched the latest stage of his campaign against the euro. Perhaps Morris should have been there. But he insists he is behind the government's policy. I remind him that, a couple of years ago, he was a euro-enthusiast. He smiles. "Let's just say, I've grown up a bit since then."
So grown up, that in his campaign to restore the link between pensions and the wage index, he offers the government the most pragmatic of lifelines by suggesting that it can be done incrementally over the lifetime of a parliament. The proposals would save the government money, he insists. "Ours is a cheaper option than the policies being pursued by the government." He acknowledges that Brown has spent substantial sums on the elderly that have been targeted on the poorer pensioners. But he suggests that four million pensioners are still living in "relative poverty". He says: "The government has misunderstood the psychology of politics here. If it spent twice as much as last year, spraying the money around on different schemes, pensioners will still get a sense of grievance unless it restores the link. The argument is unanswerable. I warn the government, you have to be pretty sure of your ground to alienate 11.5 million pensioners. There's a political argument to make sure the pensioners are kept on side, but also an economic necessity."
More broadly, in spite of my briefing a year or so ago about his worries over welfare reform, Morris is as persuasive an advocate as Gordon Brown. "I strongly commend the government's approach. It has followed an enabling philosophy, providing opportunities for training and work for those who are able to do so."
I say to him that he sounds just like the Chancellor. He laughs, and claims that Brown has taken his cue from the TGWU. You can see why Morris is a useful ally to the Treasury. He has become a critical friend, more friendly than critical. Even on the minimum wage, he takes a modest approach. "I can understand why the government was cautious about the level in the early years. We were on uncharted territory." Still, he is now campaigning for a one-off increase to bring it up to at least £4 an hour, and then for the wage to be linked to earnings each year. When I suggest that the government shows no sign of responding to this demand, or of linking pensions to wage increases, he laughs again. "Rome wasn't built in a day," he proclaims. Patience is the watchword these days, as the second biggest union of them all, with a membership of nearly 900,000, adapts to its position on the margins of power.
Asylum and immigration stand out as the issue where Morris is taking on the government without qualification and equivocation. In the spring, he wrote an article for a newspaper warning that some ministers were in danger of pandering to racists. "It seemed to me that we were about to unleash the constraints felt by those with antisocial ideas. The racists felt they were being given permission to speak out when the politicians used terms such as 'flooding' and 'economic migrants'. The government will never get an immigration policy that will please Ann Widdecombe - so they should never try."
Now he is stepping up the debate by focusing on a particular aspect of the government's policy, rather than on what he calls the "culture of the debate". For him, this will be the most important issue at the TUC conference next week and, indeed, when the Labour Party gathers in Bournemouth later in the month. He wants the government to scrap its policy of paying asylum-seekers in vouchers rather than cash. The vouchers can be exchanged for goods at some big supermarkets.
"The voucher system is pernicious, degrading, and lies open to attack by racists. I see no reason why the party I belong to creates a policy that subsidises Tesco and Sainsbury's. That's not the kind of redistribution I voted for. They should be paid in cash. The situation is becoming so serious that a black market trade has emerged out of buying and selling vouchers."
He still fears that, for the Home Office, reassuring the Daily Mail sometimes takes precedence over the most sensible policies. "That's not giving British people the credit for moral responsibility. I am absolutely confident that, if you state your case openly, they have a moral sense of justice."
The 62-year-old Morris is about to become the president of the TUC. Some trade union leaders believe that he has become too much of a government loyalist. Yet he has played a subtle game. When he speaks out, he is one of the few trade unionists to become front-page news. But ministers, too, have managed him skilfully. Brown keeps in touch with him. So does John Prescott.
There is a revealing moment. Morris rarely engages when I ask him about individual ministers. He does not want to comment too much on the departure of Mo Mowlam: "Mo is a very good friend." I suggest to him that this government cannot handle awkward characters. "It can't handle characters? What about the Deputy Prime Minister? He's another very close friend of mine and we will see much love for our Deputy Prime Minister at the TUC and Labour conferences. I only stay on for the last morning of the party conference to hear John make a rousing speech. I would have left the conferences before that if it weren't for John. You can't have a bigger character than John. And I tell you, John and his battlebus will be absolutely crucial at the next election."
I want to talk about Mowlam. He wants to rave about Prescott. Evidently, Prescott's presence at the heart of government is reassuring for trade union leaders such as Morris. Because even he has had his doubts in recent months - although typically he expresses them only retrospectively. "Earlier this year, there is no doubt that quite suddenly a cloud had descended on the government. We lost some good ministers, such as Peter Kilfoyle; there was the debate about the heartlands and a crisis in the NHS. But the comprehensive spending review has transformed the government's fortunes. It has re-energised the activists. You will see next week and in the months to come. The mood is optimistic and upbeat again."
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