Trapped in a loveless marriage

Even old-guard union leaders such as Bill Morris have fallen out with Blair. The new ones coming up

It is perhaps a sign of the times that no cabinet minister will address the tenth-anniversary conference of Unions 21 on 8 March. Unions 21 is a centre-left pressure group set up to keep Labour's mind on trade union issues. Yet only second-rank figures such as Ian McCartney from the Cabinet Office and Denis MacShane, the minister for Europe, will be in attendance. Relations between Tony Blair and the trade union movement have probably never been worse - and they seem likely to deteriorate further.

The unions may still provide the party with more than half its income, but it is hard to find anybody in new Labour's upper echelons who can now claim much rapport with union leaders. The Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, may once have seen himself as the keeper of the cloth cap, but he is no Ernest Bevin, let alone a Frank Cousins; and his bad-tempered abuse of the firefighters during their dispute has done nothing to endear him to the brothers and sisters. Gordon Brown still tries to stir up union audiences with old-style socialist rhetoric, but the Chancellor looks far more convincing as the promoter of the US business model, offering tax breaks for wealthy entrepreneurs.

Yet the Blair government has delivered some real advances for organised labour: a legally enforceable national minimum wage, union recognition laws, welfare-to-work for the unemployed, the social chapter of the EU's Maastricht treaty, and the commitment to huge public spending on schools and hospitals. Only last month, the government agreed that employees of private firms that provide "contracted-out" public services should enjoy the same rights and benefits as those directly employed by the public sector.

But such victories for the unions come infrequently nowadays. For the most part, government ministers seem more in harmony with the views of the business lobbies than they do with the TUC. To the delight of the CBI, ministers indicate that they will make no significant pro-union changes to existing labour law. Employers will still be able to sack workers if they go on lawful strike for more than eight weeks; and small firms, with 20 workers or fewer, will still enjoy exemption from union recognition procedures. It is perhaps only in policy areas such as education and training and overseas development that the unions enjoy constructive influence.

Blair has never bothered to disguise his irritation with union leaders. He has reduced his meetings with them to a single meal twice a year and no minutes are taken of what is said. He has a special dislike for the endless grumbling from John Edmonds, the irascible leader of the GMB. Other union leaders are held in not much greater regard. Bill Morris, leader of the TGWU, has recently made a fierce attack on illiberal asylum policies and what he sees as a racist mentality at the Home Office. Even Brendan Barber (the next TUC general secretary who takes over from John Monks in September), by nature a conciliatory man, is displaying impatience at government attitudes.

In the old days, enough loyal union bosses could be found to form a praetorian guard of protection around the Labour leader. Now Roger Lyons, leader of the white-collar section of Amicus, is about the only senior union figure ready to speak up for Blair. And things could get worse. If he has few friends among the present generation of leaders, Blair has plenty of sworn enemies among the angry youngish men who have been elected with big majorities in many smaller unions during the past two years.

The TGWU, the country's third-largest union, is about to hold what looks like a closely fought election for Morris's successor. Of the four national officers standing, not one has a good word for the PM. Jack Dromey, who ran unsuccessfully against Morris seven years ago with support from Blair's personal office, now describes him as "besotted with rich men". Tony Woodley, the deputy general secretary, says the government "has been too concerned with doing favours for business". Barry Camfield, assistant general secretary, refers to "the business sharks and City interests that are destroying public services for private greed". The truth is that nobody can hope to win a union election these days if they identify themselves with the government.

This autumn, Blair and his colleagues face new leaders in all the largest unions. They will lack not only experience and perspective, but any respect for a government they believe is offering little to organised labour. In every other western European country, unions are still treated as social partners and given responsibilities and obligations in corporate governance and running the political economy.

Here, neither Blair nor Brown wastes much time thinking about what role the unions could play in modernising the economy or improving productivity. In part, this reflects their belief that the unions have not really changed their obstructive attitudes or are any less ready to organise the kind of strikes that did so much damage to Labour in the 1970s.

Yet if the government gives the TUC too little to do, many unions will turn inwards and the dangers of a return to the streets and the picket lines will grow.

However, some union optimists still hope for at least an improvement in their relations with Blair and his ministers. The government is drawing up legislative plans for the creation of information and consultation committees for all workers in companies (unionised or not) that have five or more employees. In alliance with the employer lobbies, Blair bitterly opposed this EU-inspired regulation - until he found himself virtually isolated among European heads of government. He finally backed down with ill grace. Senior TUC advisers are convincing themselves that, if they lobby hard enough, the pending UK regulations will strengthen worker and union rights. But the employer associations are already mobilising for battle and, on past experience, the unions should not hold out great hopes.

Both Blair and Brown believe passionately in labour-market flexibility, deregulation and business values. To them, the TUC too often looks like a bastion of old-style social democracy. Under the modernising John Monks, every effort was made to convince Blair that the unions had learnt the hard way and now favoured a constructive dialogue with the government. They have never been given the chance to prove that they can be as good as their word. Without some trust and some offer of genuine responsibilities, the unions can hardly be expected to become willing social partners. As in so many other ways, Britain continues to be out of step with the rest of western Europe.

Robert Taylor is research associate on the Leverhulme-funded project on the future of the trade unions at the Centre for Economic Performance, London School of Economics