Making childish noises at the unions is not the way to lead Labour, says Dan Hodges

Re-watching Tony Blair and Andrew Marr earlier this week reminded me of Denis Healey’s classic put down of Geoffrey Howe, in which he compared an attack by the Tory grandee to being savaged by a dead sheep. Perhaps Marr had on off day, or maybe he’s mellowed since his forensic and rigorously sourced examination of Gordon Brown’s mental health. Whatever the reasons, it’s safe to assume that ‘Marr/Blair’ will not be appearing at our cinemas any time soon.

But one exchange was revealing. When asked about his dalliances with business, Blair replied:

“I had far more trouble, if I may say this to you, with union leaders demanding something back than I ever did with high value donors”.

I can’t feign shock at the revelation that entreaties from rich businessmen resonated more sweetly with Tony Blair than those of gruff trade unionists. But what did surprise me – in the Marr interview and to an even greater extent the memoir – is the complete and utter incomprehension with which the leader of the Labour party viewed efforts by democratically elected representatives of a modern work force to improve the pay and conditions of their members.

“When I addressed the TUC they were polite, but not much more than that. We both knew what we thought of each other…They couldn’t understand why I was doing what I was doing; and I couldn’t understand why they couldn’t see it was the way of the future”.

Well, it’s certainly true that Tony was never carried shoulder high from the Winter Gardens to ecstatic chants of, “What do we want? More competitive tendering! When do we want it? Now!”.  But to someone who was working for the GMB during the height of the tussles over public sector reform, the battles always seemed more ritualistic than antagonistic. Tony would call us “wreckers”. We’d pass a motion. Tony would complain melodramatically about “scars on his back”. We’d place a silly advert. Then he’d get his PFI hospitals, and we’d get our guarantees over TUPE.

A love in? No. But hardly the new Grunwick.

At my first TUC congress I voiced concern to an experienced GMB officer over Blair’s scheduled appearance at one of our receptions. Our delegates had spent the day bitterly denouncing every aspect of the government’s “privatisation betrayal”.

“They’ll tear him limb from limb”, I warned.

The Prime Minister arrived, and my fears for his safety proved well-founded. He was nearly trampled in the rush to grab a photo, get an autograph, or share a pint. “What we do isn’t personal son”, winked the official, “it’s only business”.

Watching this week’s congress, I was struck by that same gulf between pre-conception and reality. “Are we heading for a second winter of discontent?” – Telegraph; “Winter of discontent may finally be near” – Express. Oh, come off it. It’s more than three decades since the dead went out, the lights were piled high, and the rubbish was left unburied. Or something like that. To be honest, I was still at school, as were two thirds of today’s TUC delegates. And our memories of that time aren’t filled with the romance of the struggle. They’re of some old candles, choice words for ‘that bloody Callaghan’ and relief at not having to watch Nationwide.

Of course, deficit reduction, the election defeat and the bitter legacy of the banking crisis have given an edge to this year’s congress. But it’s been notable more for its moderation than its militancy. Paul Kenny, Les Bayliss and Brendan Barber have been just some of the notable voices calling for considered opposition to the cuts, rather than a cavalry charge into the government guns.

Even the threats emanating from the die-hards have been delivered with panache. I’m sorry, but who wouldn’t pay good money to see Bob Crowe, clad in his Baker Boy cap, astride the fast lane of the M25, raging against the unfettered forces of capitalism?

But dangers do lie ahead. The warped narrative surrounding the unions twists perception at all levels. I still recall two meetings I had with a Downing Street aide during  the PFI negotiations. At the first, he warned, “If you back Tony into a corner, there’s nothing he can give you. He can’t been seen to be backing down to union pressure”.

Fair enough. At the second, a few weeks later, I explained that agreement was possible, but there would need to be some choreography. The election for a new GMB general secretary was imminent, and we needed to create space to ensure that the executive could deliver. “I can’t tell Tony he has to fiddle with his modernisation agenda just because the GMB’s got a leadership election coming”, was the response. The idea that trade union leaders may also have a constituency just wasn’t part of the equation.

Today’s risks come not from a sudden explosion of unrest. Rather, it is miscommunication or mal-coordination that may generate a series of actions and reactions that pull us unwittingly towards the abyss.

Look at the leadership election. In order to court the unions the candidates have made increasingly robust noises opposing deficit reduction. This has raised expectations amongst the union rank and file, which has increased pressure on union executive committees and leaders. They have thus issued demands which in turn have generated even more robust noises from the candidates; and so the merry go round continues.

Similarly, because of this byplay, whatever the result of the election, a problem has been created. If David Miliband wins, the headlines will be of diminished trade union influence. If Ed Miliband wins, he will be portrayed as the union’s placeman, and inevitably react by picking a fight on a policy or organisational issue. Either way it’s a situation that could have been avoided had David  been more alive to the risks of the ‘heir to Blair’ caricature, Ed more mature about his dash to the left and the unions themselves more wary of putting all their eggs into one leadership basket. As it is, it will all need to be carefully unpicked once the contest is over.

The optimum positioning for the unions is one of visible influence, but not control. Their priorities need to become a more fully integrated part of the party’s policy programme, rather than an annexe to be bolted on when the serious work has been done. What is rum is that because of the shift of gravity within the party, that is more or less the space they now occupy. It just requires everyone to open their eyes to the new political reality.

There is no need for a post New Labour tug of war between unions and leadership. Not least because the differences under Blair himself were overstated. Both sides saw it in their interests to play to type. The tough leader facing down the unreconstructed union barons. The brave workers confronting the might of the New Labour machine. A mutually convenient narrative, which has now run its course.

As, in truth, it had at the time. Amidst the breathless excitement of the Sunday Times/YouGov poll, these interesting nuggets were overlooked: 73% of Unison, 80% of Unite and 75% of other trade unionists  believe Tony Blair did a good job as Prime Minister.

See, Tony, we just couldn’t help ourselves. Even the wreckers fell for you in the end.

Dan Hodges is contributing editor of Labour Uncut

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6 Responses to “Making childish noises at the unions is not the way to lead Labour, says Dan Hodges”

  1. Adam says:

    Talk about misinterpreting what Blair said. When he said:

    “I had far more trouble, if I may say this to you, with union leaders demanding something back than I ever did with high value donors”

    …he wasn’t, in fact saying he found it easier to give into their demands than he did union leaders. He was saying big value donors tended to give simply because a Labour government benefited businesses and that was sufficient justification for their benevolence (and yes, some I assume did ask for favours, but the vast majority did not).

    In contrast, even though the last Labour government was as good (if not more so) for massively increased trade union memberships because of the increase in public sector jobs, flexible work rights, extended paid maternity and paternity leave, safer workplaces etc. etc. So the unions benefited as much as other high value donors – but in addition unions tried to precondition their contributions through damaging demands for, for example, “repealing all Thatcher’s trade union laws”.

    Now, you may argue that unions should be able to demand whatever they want from Labour for their donations (whereas I see it as the biggest argument – in a long list – for breaking the link), but that’s not the point: the point is you’ve just expended a huge amount of energy writing an article founded on a false premise.

  2. Amanda Ramsay says:

    Says it all. While Labour spent years modernising, how about the unions movement following suit and heeding Dan Hodges’ advice: “Their priorities need to become a more fully integrated part of the party’s policy programme, rather than an annexe to be bolted on when the serious work has been done.”

  3. Dan Hodges says:


    I think you’re slightly, (and deliberately) missing the point of my article.

    You state the unions added a “damaging” precondition to their donations, demanding the repeal of Thatcher’s trade union laws.

    What laws were repealed, and what donations were withdrawn as a result of this stance?


  4. Steve Howard says:

    I am all for trade unions but resposible trade unionism is surely the way forwards with partnerships between management and the unions. At the end of the day unions and companies , whether private or public should recognise that they are both in the same boat, rowing (ship style) towards a common set of objectives. That of increasing the quality of te product and the quality of life for the product makers (workers).
    Anything less than this common objective menas that both lose out. The worker with his job the boss with his profits……

    Shared values and ownership has to be the order of the day otherwise the trade unionist will quite rightly be seen as not better than the greedy banker.

  5. Sod ‘responsible trade unionism’. They’re organisations run by their members. Lecturing them about their responsibility not to rock the boat is just patronising – funny story, nobody actually wants to make themselves unemployed.

    Besides, they have been pretty damn responsible, bar Bob Crow. And Bob Crow is not your average trade unionist – he’s got threee decades worth of time spent in version different communist or hard left political organisations. The others do exactly what you say. And get no credit for it.

  6. Robert says:

    Well said Edward mate well said.

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