Brendan Barber: There is an alternative

This is a “watershed moment” for the TUC and its general secretary, Brendan Barber. He talks to Jon

"An orgy of axe-wielding" is the colourful phrase Brendan Barber coined in May to describe the public spending cuts heading our way. Writing in the New Statesman within days of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat government taking office, the general secretary of the Trades Union Congress dismissed the coalition's plans as "madness" and complained of "needless austerity".

At the time, £6.2bn of cuts had already been identified, and this was promised to be just the start. More detail emerged during June's emergency Budget - VAT at 20 per cent, departmental savings of at least 25 per cent and a ratio of cuts to tax increases of 77:23. A definitive plan follows on 20 October, when Chancellor George Osborne unveils his Compre­hensive Spending Review. It promises to be gruesome.

For a man whose role, as TUC leader, is to lobby government on behalf of more than six million workers - many in the public sector and all facing an uncertain future - Barber, approaching 60, looks surprisingly relaxed when we meet at the end of August.

He has his feet up, resting on a sizeable coffee table at one end of his airy office on the fourth floor of Congress House. The TUC's London headquarters is a short walk from Oxford Street, the country's barometer of high-street confidence (or lack thereof).

If his body language suggests a man at ease, and if his delivery remains slow and measured throughout, the words are damning. "We've got a new government with an economic strategy that we think is profoundly wrong and carries with it huge risks of driving the economy back into recession," he says. "It's hitting working people and families and communities in a desperately negative way."

Does he think the cuts agenda is ideologically driven? "Yes," he says. "Although ministers talk the language of necessity, there's a degree of relish. The Conservative Party sees this as an opportunity to recast the role of the state, a traditional Conservative ambition. We have heard the phrase used: 'We should never waste a good crisis.' The Conser­vative Party is [grabbing] that opportunity to really, really reduce the role of
the state."

Len McCluskey, an assistant general secretary of Unite (the biggest union under the TUC's umbrella), calls this a “watershed moment" for the TUC (see page 14). Barber says he is prepared, and talks of mobilising public opinion. On 13 September, the opening day of the Congress in Manchester, he will launch a campaign - "All Together for Public Services" - to get across the central argument that there is an alternative to what the government is planning.

So, what is the alternative? "An emphasis on growth rather than austerity," he says. "Our core argument is that now is not the time to be taking serious money out of the economy. Now is the time to put the focus on making sure we have a sustainable recovery and a solid platform for economic growth."

Barber, who has led the TUC since 2003, has another task: to talk directly to the government. David Cameron has appointed a "trade union envoy", the former MEP Richard Balfe, and there was talk over the summer that the coalition was preparing a charm offensive ahead of next month's spending review. Both Downing Street and the Treasury are desperate to avoid the "autumn of discontent" being talked about in some union circles, and their strategy, so the reports have it, is to give leading union officials some "face time" with David Cameron. Barber's name is naturally on that list.

But Barber now reveals that he has already met with the Prime Minister. That was back in July, and he has had similar meetings with the Cabinet Office ministers Francis Maude and Oliver Letwin, as well as the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander.

So did Barber express his disquiet when he met the PM? "Absolutely," he replies emphatically. And what was Cameron's response? "At the moment they are dead set on this approach. He was very confident that this was the right approach."

There are clear echoes of Margaret Thatcher's promise to "roll back the frontiers of the state" in Barber's characterisation of the coalition's ambitions. That era is a familiar one to him. He became head of the TUC's press depart­ment shortly before the 1979 general election in which Thatcher replaced James Callaghan, and continued to deal with media relations during a decade that was scarred by industrial unrest, notably the Stockport Messenger dispute in 1982, the miners' strike of 1984-85 and Wapping.

It was a period of extreme flux for the trade union movement. Postwar membership peaked at the end of the 1970s - there were 12.6 million union members in Britain, the equivalent of 56 per cent of the workforce - before falling dramatically over the next ten years. Today the TUC represents 6.2 million members from 58 unions.

While Barber says "the context is different" today, he fears some of the worst aspects of the 1980s may now return. “In a lot of ways I'd like to be wrong, because the savage cuts the Thatcher government made left very deep scars in parts of the country that have never recovered from the impact of shutting down old industries, and so on. And the price was enormous. I'm not at all comfortable with the idea that we have to go through that pain again."

More optimistically, Barber believes that we are in a period of "phoney war" and, once people see the reality and consequences of the cuts, the mood will change. "We've had a small glimpse of it, with the [cancelling of the] Building Schools for the Future programme," he says. "It was striking how many backbench Tory and Liberal Democrat MPs suddenly started squealing when these cuts weren't just theoretical: they were school-building [projects] in their constituencies and their communities, and they suddenly realised they are not going to get it."

Barber believes that the Lib Dem leadership is "absolutely committed" to coalition politics, despite the misgivings of some Lib Dem MPs. "My hunch would be that they're there in five years. You can never be sure, of course, but they're kind of locked in. There's not an obvious exit strategy available to them."

He accepts, too, that a notional Labour government would be preparing the country for some sizeable spending cuts. "The Labour government had committed itself to a timescale of halving the deficit within four years. My view was that that was far too rigid, too quick."

Since the election, it has also emerged that the former chancellor Alistair Darling wanted to raise VAT to 19 per cent, a single percentage point lower than the rate that will be introduced in January 2011. "Finance ministers inevitably, I suppose, concentrate on tax-raising measures that they are confident will generate revenues. VAT has the virtue of being simple to collect and with very low levels of evasion, but it's the wrong call as it's deeply regressive and hits the poorest hardest."

On the Labour leadership, meanwhile, Barber will not be drawn on his personal preference, despite intending to vote in private. "The TUC has always been careful to make it clear that we don't have that relationship with any party, where it's proper for us to influence its internal affairs. It's a self-denying ordinance that respects the political neutrality of a lot of our affiliates." Of the 58 unions associated with the TUC, only 15 are in turn
affiliated to the Labour Party.

I wonder aloud whether he is tempted, in a personal capacity, to back fellow Evertonian Andy Burnham. "It wouldn't be right to cast my vote on the basis of people's football allegiances," he says with a smile.

Whoever wins, Barber expects the new encumbent to be "firing on all cylinders" - and to learn from missed opportunities in power. "What I don't think Labour in government really did was spell out what the alternative was to 'business as usual'. That is about the way we rebalance the economy; it's about issues around fairness and the reward system - the perverse incentive of the bonus system in the financial world."

Jon Bernstein, former deputy editor of New Statesman, is a digital strategist and editor. He tweets @Jon_Bernstein. 

This article first appeared in the 13 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, France turns right