Old cliches never die; they do not even fade away. No sooner does Tony Blair agree reluctantly to set up a forum for unions to discuss public service changes with ministers than we hear again the gibes from employers and their allies in the national press and the Conservative Party about "beer and sandwiches at No 10". No doubt the cartoonists are sketching cloth caps and carthorses. Yet some of the bosses who offered soundbites on the perils of unions getting "special access" had probably come fresh from a "working breakfast" in Downing Street for which we mere mortals are not to know either the guest list or the agenda. The problem is not beer and sandwiches but champagne and canapes; since 1997, big company bosses have attained an intimacy with government that surpasses even what they enjoyed under the Tories. That explains why ministers go through all manner of contortions to hive off public services on favourable terms to the private sector; why Britain still has one of the least onerous, least effective regimes of corporate taxation in the western world; and why this government continually drags its feet on European directives designed to improve the workers' lot.
Not that union members should give more than half a cheer when their leaders' dirty hobnailed boots (or are they expected to turn up barefoot?) are allowed to soil the carpets of No 10. The real priority for the unions is to restore their strength in workplaces, not to talk Tony Blair out of his mysterious and idiotic scheme for foundation hospitals. The results of growing union weakness over the past 20 years are plain to see. Despite nearly full employment, and despite Gordon Brown's changes to the tax and benefits system, the gap between rich and poor shows no sign of closing significantly. This is largely because inequalities in wages and salaries continue to widen: there are now more poor adults in work than there are out of work (and that includes pensioners). As Nick Cohen writes on page 31, the average British chief executive is now paid 25 times as much as the average shop-floor worker. Under a government supposedly committed to equal opportunities, the gap between men's pay and women's pay has also widened - women being overwhelmingly concentrated in the more lowly jobs, particularly in private firms that provide menial services such as cleaning and cooking meals to publicly funded institutions. These are the results of the "flexibility", the "right to manage" and the "market disciplines" in the public sector that employers sought so insistently for so long.
Those results are not confined to pay. According to research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, roughly 30 per cent of fathers and 6 per cent of mothers routinely work more than the 48 hours a week that the European Working Time Directive gives as a maximum - the numbers are nearly 20 per cent up on a decade ago. Ministers insist on keeping Britain's opt-out from the directive while they prattle on about family life and threaten draconian penalties against parents who fail to keep their children under control. But even if the directive were implemented, it would need policing. And the only conceivably effective police forces are the unions.
None of this is to argue that when they had stronger powers, the unions were perfect. Particularly at shop-steward level, women and ethnic minorities were often treated disgracefully; in sections of the motor and printing industries, they were sometimes kept out of jobs. Much union muscle was used in an uncomradely way, to protect or enhance the position of labour aristocracies, with scant regard for low-paid people in the same industries. But management has abused its powers more extensively - as it was always likely to do because it is not democratically accountable. If management needed more flexibility in the 1980s, the unions need it now. As shown by the recent British Airways dispute - which was essentially about mothers who feared that new "flexible" working practices would make it hard to plan family life - the collective capacity to walk out at short notice is often the only thing that will restrain gung-ho employers. It is in persuading bosses to show more respect for employees' individual needs that unions (although they were often none too good at that themselves) have the biggest role to play.
Only 30 per cent of the workforce now belong to trade unions. The unions' enemies quote this as a reason for ignoring them and weakening them further. It is, on the contrary, a reason to enhance their status so that more people think it worth joining. A Labour government should be encouraging wider union membership, not propagating the idea that unions are a menace to the social order.
The Campbell I know and love
I recall fondly my first meeting with Alastair Campbell, writes our man who once did a half-day in the lobby as holiday relief. "Out of my f***ing way, you c**t," he said with characteristic joviality. He was not carrying a Kalashnikov at the time. That was typical of his kindness and restraint. I once saw him pick up a baby and put it down again; at a school Nativity play, he interrupted a 45-minute mobile call to a top editor ("Just fire the s**t who writes that c**p," he was saying persuasively) to applaud his daughter's performance as the Holy Mother; at a close relative's funeral, he looked quite sorry. In such ways, the man's humanity shone out. "Blair may have made a small, rare mistake," I once wrote daringly. Did Ali abuse me? Not at all. "What f***ing mistake, a**eh**e?" he inquired courteously, with no resort to chemical weapons. Why do people think that, even after his resignation, he still scares some of us out of our wits?