Lost voice of the shop floor

Paul Routledge on the quiet in Westminster

Time was when the Strangers' Bar at Westminster was known as "the Kremlin" because so many of its regulars were Labour MPs with a strong trade union background. Many of them were "sponsored" by their union, put there to represent the working class from which they sprung.

New Labour changed all that, as so much else. The umbilical cash cord that enabled unions to sponsor individual candidates and MPs with direct donations was severed, and Blair's modernising drive actively discouraged old Buggins from claiming his turn at the parliamentary trough.

The process was already under way anyway, as social and industrial change ripped through the labour movement in the 1980s. Unions such as the miners, steelworkers, shipbuilders, printers, seamen and railway workers no longer produced the political cadres that once swelled the ranks of the Parliamentary Labour Party. As their industries disappeared, so did their clout at Westminster. Their presence is greatly missed. They spoke with the authentic voice of the shop floor, which even the Tories respected.

In their place, to a degree, have come the young suits. They are not industrial workers with direct experience of the footplate or the production line. They tend mostly to be former press officers or researchers, the sons and daughters of trade unionists, whose contact with the world of manual work is second-hand. I say this not to denigrate the likes of Tom Watson and Mark Tami of the engineering union Amicus, but to explain the absence of passion and commitment to traditional trade unionism so noticeable on the government benches.

Their silence on the burning issue of the Gate Gourmet dispute, which in years gone by would have triggered a major political row even in the silly season, was deafening. Yet the trade union group of MPs claims to be the largest in parliament, with 200 members. If it were mobilised like a craft trade union, it could move not just mountains, but the Blair administration. So what's going on?

The movers and shakers of the group are Frank Doran MP and the former Foreign Office minister Tony Lloyd. They raise issues in a weekly e-mail bulletin that goes to union officials and activists, and there are regular meetings on sectoral matters among MPs linked to Unison, Amicus or the Transport and General Workers' Union - almost on the old TUC trade group basis. They are in close contact with the employment minister Gerry Sutcliffe, himself a former print union branch secretary, and the party chairman Ian McCartney. "It's more subtle than the old days, when we would go and see a minister and threaten a revolt that could lose a Commons vote," says one of the new breed.

But does it work? Tony Blair has clearly lost interest in further reforms of the Tory anti-union laws, though the small steps away from Norman Tebbit's wholesale attack have unquestionably helped to slow down the fall in membership. Unions such as the National Union of Journalists have made big gains in recognition from employers, with a real surge of confidence among new members, particularly among young workers who are relearning the old lessons of collectivism.

In the wake of Gate Gourmet, widely seen as a fillip for the TGWU and an own goal for American-style labour relations, the big challenge now facing trade union MPs is to build on this new mood of optimism - where it counts, in Westminster. Not just through early day motions, which gain overnight publicity and little else, but through sedulous pressure on ministers to make "fairness not favours" a strategy rather than merely a slogan.

Jim Sheridan, an MP of the 2001 intake not ashamed of his union background or his job as a labourer, showed what can be done with his successful private member's bill outlawing the worst excesses of gangmasters, particularly in rural employment. There must be many more such issues for the agenda of the liaison group of trade union MPs and ministers on "delivering Warwick" - the pre-election concordat on worker-friendly policies.

Much is at stake. Even Blairite ministers know that. Many of Labour's missing millions of votes in the 2005 election belong to trade unionists, including this one. Peter Hain recently said that if Labour is to beat the Tories again, it must win those votes back. A bolder approach by "our" MPs would help.