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17 September 2001

One strike, Tony, and you may be out

The TUC knows how to threaten the PM on the public-private issue. Jackie Ashley reports

By Jackie Ashley

The worst act of terrorism in modern history cast its shadow far and wide. It was surely the most bizarre afternoon at a political conference ever, as TUC delegates debated the advantages of equal pay policies while the very heart of America was on fire. Congress was awaiting the Prime Minister – the text of his speech had already been circulated – but, as the horror of events in the United States unfolded, he sensibly decided to abandon it all.

I suspect, however, that the speech he was due to deliver to the Brothers would not have gone down half as badly as we’d all been expecting. For a start, the lads and lasses of the trade unions are a lot more polite than the refined ladies of the Women’s Institute, who gave Blair his most embarrassing moment of last year. But it was also rather a good speech. He pledged his belief in public services. He adopted Bill Morris’s theme of social justice. And he offered the unions a partnership. It would have won polite applause. But, as Tony Blair said when he announced he was ditching his speech and heading back to London, all this is now for another day.

So, after a truncated discussion between new Labour and the unions in Brighton, the mutual suspicion lives on. The Brothers and Sisters of the trade union movement maintain that their public sector members are selfless, overworked, conscientious angels, preyed upon by the cruel market and private companies. The government, like the public, knows it isn’t quite so.

If the union leaders were really honest, they would acknowledge that, in the real world, there are dozy nurses, idle and incompetent doctors, useless schoolteachers and slovenly ancillary staff, and that better management, which can (sometimes) come from the private sector, could improve many services. The national health service is staffed not by angels, but by ordinary human beings with ordinary faults.

Sentimentalising the public sector may be a natural reaction to years of outsiders demonising it, but it is not honest. Yet think of the government’s insincerity. None of the cloying, appeasing stuff from ministers about their warm admira-tion for the union movement stirred the Brothers. It was just a little shabby playing to the gallery in the hope of turning away embarrassing motions and votes at the Labour conference.

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Worse, however, is the dangerous illusion that Blair and his ministers apparently still cherish about the private sector. Just as some union leaders seem to think their members have wings, so the government seems to think business is full of brilliant entrepreneurial managers who can transform schools and hospitals without stripping out excessive profits on the way.

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But you have to ask, following the Marconi crash, just where are all these brilliant private sector people? Are they in manufacturing, a shrunken shadow of its former self, where another 250,000 jobs are expected to go before Christmas? In the fat-cat-run utilities? In the railway system, that model of efficient privatisation?

Blair’s speech contained some strong, realistic points about the government’s belated but none the less welcome increases in spending on public services and about the pragmatic urgency of finding ways to improve delivery. He is quite right to fear that, if Labour fails on all this, a Tory party genuinely committed to privatisation will one day return to power.

Where Blair failed to convince was in his claim that he personally feels passionate about the public services; that this is still – as he told the Guardian – a left-of-centre government. Everyone knows that Blair much prefers the company of business executives and admires private sector culture. He is a living embodiment of the insecurity the public sphere now feels when confronted by private sector money.

But just as he is right to see through the TUC’s sentimentalising of the public sector, so the unions know truths that Blair has not faced. Private companies are often incompetent, slovenly, greedy, badly managed and short-termist. The companies that swoop on public contracts are often at the worse end of the private spectrum. And we should be suspicious of ministers who, never having worked in private companies themselves, suddenly see them as instant saviours.

As a result of the terrible events in America, the government has got through the TUC conference week without conceding anything significant. But it has not, judging by the conversations I had in Brighton, in the slightest calmed the unions’ suspicion of its motives.

There will be one hell of a row at the Labour Party conference. Then ministers will face a clear choice between giving private contractors the freedom they want and reassuring unionised workers about their rights. And because the private companies can always walk away, and the union members can only protest or strike, the government will side with business – provoking significant industrial action over the next 12 months.

In the end, Labour and the unions face a common enemy in the Tory culture of full privatisation, but unless Labour ministers revise their naive belief in the brilliance of the private sector, a serious rift will occur.

Yes, Labour and the unions could part company. But the result would be a completely rootless, directionless and ideologically vulnerable political party, and a union movement always at odds with elected authority. That would be a political disaster for both.