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8 September 2003

Awkward? Us? Never!

If the unions are so angry with the government, why is their top man so placatory? Francis Beckett e

By Francis Beckett

These days, a candidate in a trade union election who gets labelled a Blairite might as well give up – his campaign is dead in the water. The so-called “awkward squad” of trade union general secretaries, which loathes new Labour and all its works, wins a recruit every time a general secretary retires and his members have the chance to vote in a new one. Developments such as foundation hospitals and the widening gap between poor and rich have got trade unionists asking: what do we support Labour for? And that could lead to a big hole in the party’s coffers.

But you could spend hours with Brendan Barber, now starting his first TUC Congress as general secretary, and you would learn none of that. When I met this diplomatic, softly spoken mandarin the other day, the thing he said was: “A key objective I’ve set myself is that we need to strive for a greater level of understanding with the government.”

He is discreetly, but unmistakably, irritated with unions that spurn the ministerial embrace. He thought the government worked well with the teachers’ unions to get a recent settlement, and regrets that “the agreement did not embrace all unions: at the end of the day, the National Union of Teachers did not feel it could sign up to the agreement”. TUC leaders never criticise member unions, and Barber’s language is always careful, so that is the equivalent of a ferocious rebuke.

Does new Labour make him feel like “an embarrassing elderly relative at a family gathering”, as his predecessor John Monks once put it? Not at all. Maybe in John’s time (well, Barber could hardly say Monks was talking rubbish), but not now.

Barber is investing a great deal in his hope that the government will start listening to the unions again: “I’ve been prepared to give credit to the government for the positive things they’ve done. Perhaps I’ve been more prepared to give that credit than some of my colleagues.” That’s the understatement of the century. “In return, I’d like the government to challenge unions in positive ways.” He wants ministers to see the unions as part of the solution, not part of the problem. He wants to be consulted.

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He even questions the whole idea that there is an “awkward squad” in the TUC. “This is overwritten,” he says. “The idea is demeaning to those whose names get mentioned as members of that parti- cular squad. I sense some irritation on their part.”

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All this is very odd. Barber must know perfectly well that the awkward squad isn’t a media creation: it is a definable group of disaffected union leaders. Their regular meetings began as a group of leftish leaders of small unions, such as the journalists’ Jeremy Dear and the college lecturers’ Paul Mackney, partly to stop them being rolled over by right-wing leaders of big unions. Then the big unions, too, started to elect disaffected leaders, such as Derek Simpson at Amicus-AEEU and Tony Woodley at the Transport and General Workers’. Some, like Woodley, believe that Labour needs radical change; others, like Mark Serwotka at the Public and Commercial Services Union, think the Labour Party is no longer worth the unions’ support and money.

Barber insists he “reflects the frustrations”, especially in private when he meets ministers, and I am sure he does, but his public stance is extraordinary for the leader of a movement that is increasingly in open revolt against the political party it created a century ago.

He can offer cogent arguments for his approach. It is good marketing to show that the unions influence the government. He thinks that attacking the government aids the Conservatives. And he is by nature a calm conciliator, a quiet persuader. He’s spent a lifetime doing these things, and does them well.

But the real reason why the TUC’s head is so far away from its heart lies not in these tactical arguments, but in the nature of the TUC itself, and the traditional role of its general secretary.

In trade unions, members elect the general secretary. If they want a change from the old leadership, they will have one. Derek Simpson and Tony Woodley were both elected in the teeth of opposition from their predecessors. Mark Serwotka’s predecessor wanted to get the courts to annul the election.

But the TUC leader is not elected by the members. More than that, the choice is made in a way that is specifically designed to ensure that it does not reflect any currents of thinking that may be going on at the time.

The general secretary, invariably, is someone who has worked his way up the ladder at Congress House. Brendan Barber, now aged 52, has worked there since he was 24. I first heard his name mentioned internally as a likely future general secretary when he became the (highly efficient) head of press and information in 1979. Monks spent 34 years with the organisation that he joined as a policy assistant in 1969.

The only serious attempt to bring in someone from outside Congress House was made by Jack Jones, the powerful transport workers’ leader, nearly two decades ago.

Jones failed because the big unions see the TUC as a convenient bureaucracy, not as the political leadership of their movement. They prefer to provide political leadership themselves. The danger of this approach is that, while Congress House produces able, intelligent people such as Brendan Barber, such people may not represent the mood of the movement that they lead.