A very tactical merger

Observations on political plots

He has a limited knowledge of the labour movement, and only titular membership of the Transport and General Workers' Union, but Tony Blair has a vested interest in seeing off a revival of confidence and co-operation among union leaders. In particular, the Labour leader has set his sights on destabilising the "Gang of Four" which has recently emerged: Dave Prentis of Unison, Derek Simpson of Amicus, Tony Woodley of the T&G and Kevin Curran of the GMB.

The chosen vehicle for this plot is a merger of the T&G with the GMB to form a "super-union" of 1.4 million members, which would easily be the largest affiliate to the Labour Party. The two unions are expected to open formal talks soon.

Nothing unusual in that, it may be argued. Trade unions have been merging since the time of the Tolpuddle Martyrs in the 19th century. It is frequently overlooked that trade unionism is big business, with an annual turnover of hundreds of millions of pounds. Falling membership forces even the large players to look for economies of scale. But this time it is also political. Downing Street would dearly love to dismantle the "Gang of Four" collaboration that compelled the Prime Minister to make substantial concessions on work-life issues in the agreement reached at the National Policy Forum in Warwick a couple of months ago.

No 10's favourite son in this operation is Jack Dromey, deputy general secretary of the T&G and a one-time hero of the Grunwick strike of the 1970s. The husband of the Solicitor General, Harriet Harman, Dromey is essentially a Blairite loyalist who put what some saw as artificial distance between himself and new Labour when he ran for the union's number two slot.

"Jack is all over Westminster like a rash," said one suspicious official of a union not involved in the wheeler-dealing.

Curran, the GMB leader, is also seen as being closer to the government. He was the favoured candidate in the election for secretary general, which he won from the Blairite stronghold of the north-east.

The merger is spurred by the falling membership of the GMB - down to 600,000, according to figures in a confidential document to the TUC general council (and probably lower). The T&G is also feeling the pinch - down to 817,000 from a historic high of two million. But Blair's advisers are confident that the get-together will create a government-friendly giant to counteract the influence of Unison and Amicus.

Eventually, there could be just two large unions - one general and one public service, with a few specialist organisations on the fringe - a situation devoutly wished for by new Labour strategists, who see it as more susceptible to political management.

This article first appeared in the 04 October 2004 issue of the New Statesman, Muslim is not a dirty word