Bring on the camels

Most unions use the strike weapon sparingly, as the press always demanded. Their reward is to be ign

The comparison may seem an unlikely one, but the fate of the trade unions should be an awful warning to the royal family. Once the press couldn't get enough of the unions. Every paper had at least one labour correspondent, and some had four. The big union leaders were household names, as was the general secretary of the TUC. None of this stopped the unions grumbling, as do the royals, about unfair, inaccurate and intrusive coverage.

Today the unions, which could once command front-page stories at the drop of a spanner in Bootle, are lucky to get an inside page nib. Apart from the Morning Star, only the Financial Times still has a full-time labour reporter, and he's called "employment correspondent". The Guardian, which now quotes the CBI more often than it quotes the TUC, recently gave the labour beat to a Westminster correspondent, asking him to fit it in when he has time to spare. Even politically aware people have to pause a minute before remembering that Brendan Barber is TUC general secretary.

The unions put more effort into their media relations than they used to, but to little avail. The press simply isn't interested. As the Independent's Barrie Clement, still bylined "labour editor" but also "transport editor", puts it, newspapers now address their readers as consumers, not as producers. Most unions use the strike weapon sparingly and behave "responsibly", as the press always demanded (and as they have to, after the Tory legislation of the 1980s), and their reward is to be ignored. Their influence and membership continues to decline, even under a Labour government. As Oscar Wilde observed, there's only one thing worse than being talked about, and that's not being talked about.

The smarter unions, such as the GMB, still manage a high public profile, partly through eye-catching paid advertisements, partly through well-presented research on subjects such as boardroom pay, and partly through imaginative gimmicks. This year, for example, the GMB took a camel to a south London church, quoting the biblical words about rich men and eyes of needles. It was a protest against the devoutly Christian millionaire Damon Buffini, who had taken control of the AA and sacked a third of the workforce. It got coverage all right, but most newspaper readers probably remember the camel's grievances, explained on its behalf by the animal rights lobby, more than they remember those of the AA workers.

Union leaders used to regard press relations as only a marginal part of their operation. Some, such as Arthur Scargill at the helm of the National Union of Mineworkers, bunkered down in distant Sheffield, would scarcely talk to Fleet Street journalists at all. The general secretary's job was to organise the members and negotiate on their behalf, relying on industrial muscle to strengthen their bargaining power. Now most employers fear bad publicity more than they fear a strike or work-to-rule. And unions need the media to remind members, actual and potential, that they exist at all.

What has been lost through the decline of the labour correspondents is something more than coverage of the organised working class or - almost as frequently these days - the organised middle class. An insight into how the nation goes about its work has been lost, too. True, the labour correspondents talked to union leaders in London more than they talked to shop stewards and rank-and-file members. But as one former labour reporter observed, if they were to make sense of sometimes arcane disputes and their likely effect on the public and the economy, "they had to know about how a motor car was made, the difference between a stevedore and a docker, the times when the grain ships arrived". (If all that sounds rather masculine, it was; you don't need the fingers of one hand to count the number of successful women labour correspondents.)

The labour correspondents also provided an alternative slant on parliamentary politics. Particularly when a Labour government was in power, their contacts in the labour movement - and among the bosses of the nationalised industries - made them every bit as important as the Westminster lobby correspondents. Harold Wilson routinely briefed the labour correspondents as well as the lobby and ensured that they, alongside the political correspondents, could follow his election campaigns. The unions then had a central role not only in Labour Party policy- making but, through bodies such as the National Economic Development Council (or Neddy), in British economic policy.

The labour correspondents' diminished role became clear in the 1980s. As Paul Manning, a sociologist at De Montfort University, Leicester, explains in a paper for the academic journal Media, Culture & Society, Tory ministers ensured newspaper editors and political correspondents were better informed about the miners' strike than the labour specialists. In their campaign to marginalise the unions, the Tories also deliberately marginalised the unions' customary conduit to the media.

The true successors to the labour correspondents are the finance and economics correspondents. Britain now earns its living from shuffling money around, not from making things. A Labour government, just as much as a Tory one, woos bankers and venture capitalists, not union leaders. Like any other pressure or special interest group - environmental groups or human rights campaigners or mental health charities - the unions have to rely on their wits to get themselves in the papers. If that means bringing on the horses, or the camels, so be it.