Dave Prentis: Our time has come

Jonathan Derbyshire meets Unison's leader, Dave Prentis.

I meet Dave Prentis, who has served as general secretary of the public sector union Unison for the past decade, on the day that Tony Blair's memoir, A Journey, is published. The former prime minister once complained, notoriously, that his attempts to reform public services had left him with scars on his back. How does Prentis remember his union's relationship with Blair?

“In the early years [of the Labour government] there was a common agenda, and there was a feeling that floors would be put in place to protect the lowest-paid and the most vulnerable. So we had the minimum wage, which is something we had campaigned on for decades. And going on from there, we got agreements with the government - directly with Tony Blair - on the two-tier workforce, ensuring that people coming in on contracts couldn't be paid less than people who had been transferred [from the public sector to the private]."

Prentis's assessment of the latter part of the Blair premiership (after the 2001 general election) is much less forgiving - this was the period, after all, in which "public sector reform" became the principal measure of New Labour's "modernising" zeal. "I think the Labour government was pulled far more into the hands of multinational companies and into believing that, if the wealthy do well, then the rest of society will do well. But that has been absolutely blown apart by the banking crisis."

The political economy of Blairism is not the only victim of the global financial crisis, of course. "The rich have looked after themselves and it's the poor who will be paying," Prentis says. And low-paid public sector workers - his members - are especially vulnerable to a coalition government that plans not merely to "reform" public services, but to cut spending on them drastically.

“The Tories are implementing the agenda that they've always had, which is to cut public service provision. And they're using the excuse of the recession to do it. I have no doubt whatsoever that public sector workers will lose their jobs when there is no need for them to do so."

Where does George Osborne's assault on public spending leave union leaders such as Prentis? In 2008, Richard Balfe, the former Labour MEP chosen by David Cameron to be his point man with the trade unions, said that the Tories regarded Prentis as "someone that can work with them if they win the next election". Now that the Conservatives are in power, albeit cohabiting with the Liberal Democrats, have they been in touch?

“There's been dialogue with our union, in fact with all unions. But it hasn't been at my level with Cameron," Prentis reveals. "I sit on the Public Service Forum with the Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, so I've talked to him, but other than that, nobody else."

In any case, in Prentis's view, the coalition's commitment to the sort of "social dialogue" between government and the unions encouraged under the previous administration is flimsy. "The terms of reference are different," he says. "They are saying: 'What we want to talk to you about is how you will help us to implement the cuts', not whether or not they should take place."

Although he insists that representing the interests of his 1.3 million members means talking to the government (and he points out he has "dealt with the Tories for decades" at the local level), Prentis says unequivocally that Unison will not offer a "helping hand to make the cuts". And he dismisses a suggestion made by Balfe in June this year that the union would abandon its opposition to cuts in exchange for a deal on public sector pensions. "He's flying kites. The idea that we'd accept the cuts in return for pensions just . . . came out of his brain! We will not seek agreements with the government which allow for cuts to take place."

In the run-up to the Chancellor's Comprehensive Spending Review in late October, Prentis has been travelling the country, mobilising his members for the battles that are sure to come. He clearly enjoys addressing the troops. "It's evangelical. The early trade unions were evangelical in their approach. A lot of my work has been to get over to our activists that this is why trade unions came into being. They came into being to represent working people against all the might of capitalism, and that is what we're going through now. I'm making the point very strongly that our time has come."

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 13 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, France turns right

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide