The not so special relationship

Observations on Labour versus labour

The trade union movement is becoming "increasingly irrelevant every day", declared the Confederation of British Industry in a press release at the beginning of this month. The statement was carefully timed to do maximum damage to the fragile wreckage of an old and close relationship between the unions and the Labour Party. It came a couple of weeks after union and Labour leaders patched up their differences at a meeting of the party's National Policy Forum in Warwick, and just weeks before the Trades Union Congress and Labour Party conferences, at which both sides fear that the patches will be roughly stripped away to reveal the gaping wounds beneath.

The mischief-making of the CBI's director general, Digby Jones, will undoubtedly rub salt into the wounds. While union and Labour leaders try to pretend they still have some respect for each other, the unions know in their hearts that the opinion of Prime Minister Tony Blair, and that of some of his ministers, is the same as Jones's.

Jones repeated all the self-serving rubbish that the greedier sort of employers have served up for as long as trade unions have existed, but updated it for the computer age. Employees, he claimed, are no longer vulnerable to exploitation because of rising skill levels - as though call-centres are anything more than the 21st-century version of 19th-century sweatshops. All employees need to do today to protect themselves is be "adaptable, trained and valuable", he said.

Jones's guns were trained on Brussels. Unions, he complained, want the Working Time Directive (which stops the worst employers from depriving their people of leisure time), and they demand the full implementation of the Agency Temps Directive (which stops employers from avoiding their duty to staff by hiring them from agencies). And, as he said triumphantly, Chancellor Gordon Brown agrees with him.

The unions will respond diplomatically. Perhaps, they will say, Jones is worried that the government might, after all, start taking the side of the underdog. But privately they know what happens with European directives that give rights to workers. John Monks, who was general secretary of the Trades Union Congress until last year and now heads the European Trade Union Confederation, talks of the Blair government "going to war" in the corridors of Brussels to stop such directives. "We don't do collective bargaining" was how one sleek young Downing Street aparatchik put it at a meeting in Brussels.

The stark truth for the unions is that they are being called on once again to throw a shed load of money into a campaign for the re-election of a government that has little but contempt for them. And it looks as though they will do it. At the Warwick meeting of Labour's National Policy Forum, which was attended by the Prime Minister and several cabinet members as well as the TUC general secretary, Brendan Barber, and other union leaders, ministers went just far enough.

"There was a changed mood after Warwick," said one trade unionist. "We came back with a substantial tranche of real policy commitments, though there is no hope of storming any of the new Labour citadels." For example, secondary picketing will remain illegal, and civil service job cuts will not stop. As the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, has put it to meetings of company bosses: "We are not going to repeal the Thatcher union laws and we are not going to allow Europe to do it."

What did the unions get at Warwick? Many of the gains that were trumpeted look vague and insubstantial. The most tangible was probably the extension of protection against the "two-tier workforce". This is created when jobs move from the public to the private sector and one group of workers find themselves doing the same jobs as another group but on worse pay and conditions. Even that protection will face cabinet opposition (the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, and the Health Secretary, John Reid, have already grumbled privately about it). Among the union requests that were dismissed at Warwick was for workers to have employment rights "from day one for unfair dismissal and redundancy" and for employers to contribute to a second pension. Both of these will be passed at the TUC conference.

Unions and Labour leaderships have had disagreements before. In 1931, it was the unions that made it impossible for Ramsay Macdonald's government to cut the rate of unemployment pay. At the end of the 1970s, union leaders kept the Callaghan government alive by agreeing to wage restraint, and when they could no longer take their members with them on the issue, Labour was out of office for 18 years.

But this is different from anything that has gone before. For a hundred years, trade union leaders regarded the Labour Party as their little brother - likeable and useful, but wayward and requiring a firm hand. It was the unions that steadied the party in its worst crises. Just occasionally, a very senior union leader could be persuaded, out of public duty, to join the cabinet, as did Ernest Bevin in 1940 and Frank Cousins in 1964, but they thought that the real business of the working class was done in trade union offices.

Blair's leadership has changed all that. It is true that the relationship was changing in the years when Neil Kinnock and John Smith led the Labour Party, from 1983 to 1994. But every Labour leader from Keir Hardie to John Smith saw the trade unions as an essential part of a civilised society, a protection that the people they represented should not be denied.

Trade unionists have never before been faced with a Labour front bench who essentially agree with business leaders that the unions are irrelevant. They do not know what to do with them. The general secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union, Tony Woodley, negotiates with them. Barber lavishes his considerable charm and diplomacy on them, and tries to pretend that all is well. Some of them are despairing, others are waiting for Brown. But although Brown, unlike Blair, understands the trade unions, it is far from certain that he is any more sympathetic.

Neither side is ready to abandon the relationship. The party still needs the unions' money, while the unions are transfixed by history. "My hand would drop off if I voted anything but Labour," said a senior union official to me at the last election. But they are getting very little for their loyalty and their members' money. It cannot go on like this much longer.