The New Statesman Interview - Bill Morris

Britain's best-known trade unionist wants managed immigration, and will help the Lib Dems to fight p

Bill Morris is enraged. The most prominent black man in British political life and the country's best-known trade unionist feels utterly betrayed by the government's handling of asylum. "Britain is closed," he tells me. "Managed migration is something we have to look at seriously" to solve some of the shortages of skilled people that are plaguing our public services.

It is the first time a senior labour-movement figure has called for such a radical rethink of immigration policy, and it is likely to set alight a passionate debate at Labour's conference in October. The Transport and General Workers' Union leader also warns that if the government doesn't start to listen on the issue of public services, the very heart of the Labour Party will be eaten away; and he insists that cutting and running on a euro referendum would be a big mistake. But it is immigration that is at the top of his agenda when we meet. After a summer when race relations and asylum have dominated the news, with race riots in July and now scores of asylum-seekers struggling through the Channel Tunnel, "the policy is in chaos", he declares.

Morris is realistic about public opinion. "There's no votes in being liberal to asylum-seekers or refugees," he says. He cites the example of the Afghan refugees stranded for days on end off the coast of Christmas Island. "If you are tough and nasty to them, there's a strand of public opinion that says 'Bravo'." For Morris, the question of asylum and immigration is a "political issue", but there must come a point, he insists, where "humanity, decency and justice have to override some of the political considerations". Morris now believes that we have to allow a certain amount of immigration - a quota system, perhaps - but also ensure that it is handled properly.

It is the green-card policy that the United States has followed, and which, he claims, "has built the strength of the US economy to what it is today". He has no qualms about admitting that some would-be asylum-seekers are in fact economic migrants: "Not everybody who comes is really fleeing oppression. In many cases, the oppression is poverty." But his call for managed migration comes at an apposite time, because the newspapers have been full of stories about teacher shortages. "The fact is," says Morris, "we're short of teachers, we're short of doctors, the police force are not recruiting to their strength. We're short of nurses, and yet we close our doors. Britain is closed."

While Morris believes that immigration would benefit the country, there is also a moral strand to his argument. "Resources have been pillaged and plundered in so many parts of the world. You can't take out the minerals, you can't take out the resources, you can't exploit everything that's going and then turn the people away." It's a discussion that Labour has shied away from, despite a brave attempt last year by the then immigration minister, Barbara Roche, to open a national debate on the subject. Perhaps the government genuinely does not see managed migration as a sensible solution; perhaps it worries that, behind all the politically correct rhetoric, we are a nation of racists. Whatever the answer, Morris doesn't want the issue swept under the carpet any longer.

If there is a personal edge to Morris's anger, it is surely to do with Labour's use of the voucher system for asylum-seekers. At last year's Labour Party conference, Morris was on course to defeat the leadership over the system that gives vouchers, rather than cash, for food and basic supplies. In a powerful speech, he then described it as "fuel for the ugly face of racism and discrimination". He had the votes behind him, and a defeat for Tony Blair on this issue would have followed the dramatic one over state pensions. Morris, however, was persuaded to withdraw his motion. He and many other campaigners thought the government had made it quietly clear that it would review and scrap vouchers. A year on, despite a welter of contradictory leaks, there is no sign that it will.

Morris's views have, if anything, hardened. Of the voucher system, he says simply: "It's demeaning, it stigmatises, it breeds a criminal element in terms of a black market, it's no deterrent and it should be scrapped." He also bitterly criticises the suggestion, which emerged from the Home Office recently, that would-be asylum-seekers should have to learn English. He describes the idea as part of the drive towards "greater depths of desperation" resulting from the lack of a coherent policy.

Asylum may be at the root of Morris's sense of disillusionment with the Labour government. But for his members, the disillusion comes from a subject closer to home: the government's determination to press ahead with "whatever works" - the private sector, if necessary - to improve public services.

It is a policy that tests his union's links with Labour to the very limit. Morris says his postbag is full of letters asking: "Why do you continue to support this government?" Morris writes back explaining his reasons, but he is by no means ignoring his members' views. "Our members are triple stakeholders - they provide public services, they are taxpayers and they are consumers - so they have the highest level of legitimacy in coming to the debate. They speak for civil society." Public services are among the basic things "which define society, which define the moral values of the country". People hold the government responsible for that: if ministers were to subcontract out of that deal, voters would, in turn, subcontract out of their trust and confidence in the government.

"Our position, if the government does not listen, will not manifest itself in strikes or winters of discontent; but what will happen is that the government will have no advocates, no ambassadors."

It is a more subtle warning than instant revolt, but no less chilling: nobody will go out into the hinterland and extol the virtues of a caring, listening, compassionate government, and "ultimately it will eat away at the very heart of the party itself and it will debilitate government". Tony Blair's ministers have to be mindful of public opinion, but also of their core support, he says.

On the day we met, the Secretary of State for Education, Estelle Morris, was insisting that, if necessary, private companies will be able to take over failing schools. Bill Morris believes that this is seen by many people as "more than one step too far". He remarks drily that he "didn't hear during the election campaign that schools were going to be handed over to the private sector, lock, stock and barrel". Yet that is exactly what the government seems to be proposing. The big question surrounding the TUC conference is: will there be meltdown between the government and the unions? Morris, who is president of the TUC this year and will be chairing debates, is playing down talk of blood on the carpet. "Those who are waiting with bated breath to get the heads of a few general secretaries to place in the trophy room at No 10 are going to be disappointed." What he does predict, if the government doesn't listen to what the unions are saying, is that the campaign against the government's plans will "go on and on".

It may be a question of a realignment of the traditional forces of Labour and the unions against capital and business. For Morris, talk of ideological barriers coming down can work both ways: if the government insists there will be no ideological barrier to the private sector delivering public services, then, says Morris, "there can't be any ideological barrier to building a broad coalition to defend public services if we have to".

Fighting talk. But just what does Morris mean? Yes, he does mean sitting down with the Liberal Democrats if necessary to oppose the government's plans for privatisation. "If the government can sit down in a constitutional committee with the Liberal Democrats, what's wrong with Bill Morris sitting on a platform with them?" he asks. The government's bid to bring everyone from businessmen to pop stars into its "big tent" also works both ways, he believes. "This big tent is a tent with two sides," he says. In other words, if the government is looking elsewhere for its friends, then so will the unions.

Bill Morris is a lifelong Labour supporter and is certainly not prepared, at this stage, to abandon the party. But he views the leadership's plan for utilising the private sector in apocalyptic terms. Failure to listen could even, Morris believes, one day bring down the Labour government: "It will weaken the government. Remember, not so long ago we were told the Conservative Party was invincible, that it would be in office for generations to come." He pauses. "But politics is very volatile. You're invincible today, and unelectable tomorrow, so there are some big lessons here."

There is one other great issue hanging over British politics - the looming decision on the euro. Morris declares himself to be in favour of joining in principle, "but it can't be at any old time and on any old terms . . . Short of going to war, giving up your currency is the single biggest political decision any nation can have to take." The government, therefore, has to look at the wider question of European political reform, transparency in the European Central Bank and the failure of EU institutions; it has to build a democratic process that underpins the currency.

And if that happens? With the right reforms, and if the economic conditions were right, "then we'll be first in the queue shouting 'yes', but at the moment we are first in the queue, from the trade union perspective, shouting 'no' - particularly at this time, when we do see an economic slowdown coming . . . Any notion of cutting and running for a referendum would not serve the economic and political instincts of the British people." Such an analysis will cause winces in No 10, but a bass rumble of approval in the Treasury.

It would be wrong to say that Morris is speaking to me more in sorrow than in anger. There is a great deal of anger here. But there is sorrow, too. He wants the union he leads to be Labour's friend. "We've always been a critical friend," he says, "and we'll continue to be a critical friend." The trouble is, new Labour is making it very difficult for him to be a friend. Morris would like to patch up the friendship, to make it work again. What's not so certain is whether Blair feels the same way.