When the kidding had to stop

<strong>Taken from The <em>New Statesman</em> 6th September 1968</strong>

This coming week, Gordo

Who is the windblown figure, battling along the front at Blackpool? Past "Seaview" he goes, past the Belgrave, past the Cliffs, sharp left and past Yates's Wine Lodge - where Labour ministers will drink a glass of lunchtime champagne to demonstrate their solidarity with the workers - and finally to the Winter Gardens, in which the only visible form of plant life is the fruit machines. Is it? Can it be? Indeed, it is: the Political Correspondent of the New Statesman, refreshed after several weeks' holiday, come to the one hundredth annual Trades Union Congress.

And is the journey worth the trouble? Well, not entirely. The real business of this Congress could have been completed in two days. The railway service between London and Blackpool is dilatory, and near Warrington the trains have the disconcerting habit of going backwards.

Still, this year's TUC does have something to give to the observer of politics. In order to make the most of this offering it is probably as well to resist the temptation to be funny at the TUC's expense.

It is easy to throw pebbles at the TUC, and to ignore its real virtues and real difficulties. Its principal virtue is that on economic policy it has been more consistently right than the government. It has been against the present level of unemployment and in favour of a higher growth-rate. It has for a long time urged a reconsideration of the role of sterling. Its principal difficulty is that it has been quite unable to persuade or force the government to take the slightest notice of its views. And this difficulty is part of a wider one, which can be termed the failure of Woodcockism. The story of Mr George Woodcock [the TUC's general secretary] is moving and, it is not too much to say, tragic. Indeed Mr Woodcock himself, with his self-questionings, his thinkings aloud, his public contortions, his painful integrity, his self-induced muddles, is a consciously tragic figure. Mr Woodcock's view - and I am conscious of the difficulty of summarising it - was that the trade union movement could bargain on almost equal terms with the government, not, be it noted, because the government happened to be Labour, still less because the unions were part of the Labour movement, but because the unions were an important estate of the realm.

Open this year's TUC Annual Report, however, and the gravestones of Woodcockism pop from the pages like those stand-up cardboard castles in books for children. Thus "the General Council's representatives also pointed out that they had put forward a comprehensive set of practical policies in their review and they wanted a serious discussion of their proposals". Or again, the General Council had some doubts about the value of such a meeting after the government had apparently decided what it was going to do.

Mr Woodcock's approach failed because of the facts of the economic situation, as the government saw those facts, generally mistakenly. It also failed because Mr Harold Wilson made a conscious decision to keep his distance from the trade union movement. The unions, he decided, were unpopular, and there was no harm, there might even be some good, in offending them from time to time. What we have been seeing this week, in fact, is the final collapse of the establishmentarian way of looking at the relations between government and unions.

The consequence of the collapse of Woodcockism may be that the unions will move closer to the Labour Party. If the unions cannot have influence with the government they will have influence with the party. Admittedly this process is not an inevitable one, but it is what one would expect: and already there are signs - for instance, in the decline of the old-world bosses - that this is what is happening. Now, if this analysis is correct, it means that Mr Wilson has trouble in store.

Miss Jennie Lee's reception on Monday provided some indications of what he can expect. If Mrs Barbara Castle [the employment secretary] resembles Queen Elizabeth I, Miss Lee [the minister for the arts] occupies the same position in the party as the Queen Mother does in the country as a whole. The winning smile, the gracious gesture - how beautifully she does it all: daintily she confessed that she knew nothing about economics, and the audience were unmoved. This and other gambits having failed to produce the expected response, she wheeled on her old grandfather, and the delegates stared stolidly ahead. The TUC seemed to have decided that the kidding had to stop.

Certainly this was evident in Wednesday's debate on the economy. And the Labour Party Conference may be in the same mood in a few weeks' time. Does it matter? Governments can certainly survive adverse votes and surly conferences, but, other things being equal, it is clearly better to have a good conference than a bad one. Other things, however, are not equal. On the evidence of the TUC, what the Labour movement now wants is not simply to be cheered up, not to be fed the kind of pap that Mr Wilson and Mr James Callaghan provided at Scarborough last year, but to be treated as rational human beings.

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Why Boris and London deserve each other