The Bain of their lives

Observations on firefighters

It wasn't what the unions were expecting. Sir George Bain, head of the government-appointed independent review of the fire service, has many admirers in the trade union movement and - although the Fire Brigades Union has refused to co-operate with him since the inquiry started in September - most observers thought he would at least offer emollient words and a pay offer in the realm of acceptability. Instead, his interim report not only disputes the firefighters' claim for a 40 per cent rise but does so in the most dismissive terms.

Bain has won the confidence of many union leaders through more than 35 years in industrial relations studies. He made his reputation at Warwick University, running the industrial relations research unit in the 1960s and 1970s, when union power was at its height. He was an enthusiast for industrial democracy on the Bullock inquiry in the mid-1970s.

But nobody could accuse him of being sentimental. With supreme self-confidence, he named his own lavish package when appointed principal of the London Business School in 1989. Now vice-chancellor of Queen's University in Belfast, he has upset staider colleagues by ruthlessly easing out the older and less starry academics. Nor did he exactly emerge as a people's hero at the Low Pay Commission. As its first chairman, he set a national minimum wage rate that many of its members believed was far too low.

Inquiries such as Bain's on the firefighters were once conducted by such hapless worthies as Sir Jack Scamp and Lord Wilberforce - and almost invariably recommended inflationary pay rises to buy off strikes. Now, as Bain writes in his report: "Under the government's public-sector pay policy, more money for pay can be justified only by the delivery of offsetting efficiency savings." And it seems he believes what ministers say.

Blair hopes that by defeating the firefighters, he can silence the rumbling militancy among nurses, teachers, air-traffic controllers and other public-sector workers. He is likely to be encouraged - and the unions dismayed - that Tony Young, former general secretary of the Communication Workers Union and the 2001-2 TUC president, was a member of Bain's inquiry and backed the report. If Young was unimpressed by the firefighters' case, it seems likely that many other union leaders will be equally unmoved.

But Blair is playing a dangerous game. A season of set-piece industrial battles in the public sector could upset the public, anger the Labour Party and cost him votes. Moreover, to push through its modernisation of the public services using collaboration with the private sector, the government needs the unions on board.

This is where Bain may have further uses. Blair would probably never contemplate an incomes policy for the public sector. But some pay co-ordination between public-service workers may be needed. And who, at the back end of the winter of discontent in 1979, was appointed by a Labour government to chair a pay comparability commission? Why, none other than Bain's mentor, Professor Hugh Clegg, also of Warwick.

Margaret Thatcher abolished the commission within a year of winning the 1979 election, fearful of its inflationary implications and contemptuous of the public sector. Now, something similar is needed: something more market-driven than the Clegg commission was, committed to a flexible and decentralised approach to pay determination, and less concerned with notions of equity and social justice. Bain could be just the man.

Robert Taylor is research associate on the Leverhulme future of the trade unions project at the London School of Economics