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