Pottage off the menu?

Submitted by Daniel_Randall on 22 September, 2004 - 12:00

Having sold the unions’ souls for a mess of pottage — or rather, a promise from the Blair leadership that the next Labour manifesto will include a promise of a mess of pottage — the big union leaders are now worried that they will not even get that.

Tony Blair has appointed Alan Milburn as his “general election coordinator” and chair of the “election campaign planning committee”. “Milburn’s manifesto” was summed up by the Financial Times on 10 September:

“Where it is feasible for users to exercise individual choice... that should be the norm” [code for more marketising, and letting money make the choices]. “The balance of power needs to move in favour of consumers [read, people with market power because they have the money] over producers [read, workers]”.

He wants “competitive pressures to drive improvement”.

He “believes in a new agenda in industrial relations, which is about work-life balance and family-friendly practices” — no, that doesn’t mean a statutory 35 hour week; it means he wants more “flexible working” and more childcare provision, of sorts — “rather than the traditional agenda of pay and employment protection”.

He wants “competition in healthcare with a big role for the private sector”.

TUC general secretary Brendan Barber can see what’s shaping up. On 8 September he nervously asked Tony Blair “to demonstrate that [the deal with the unions at Labour’s National Policy Forum on 23-25 July] does not represent a pre-election stitch-up but a genuine commitment... If the commitments are not carried out, it would be hugely damaging”.

At the Policy Forum Blair gave a few concessions to the unions, and in return they agreed to drop all other demands — crucially, the demand for the repeal of the Tory anti-union laws and the restoration of unions’ freedom to organise and operate. They chose not to use their right to take a “minority report” to Labour Party conference (which starts on 26 September), and so dropped any attempt to argue openly on the issues in the labour movement in favour of trusting to backroom promises.

The concessions given were so mild that it should not bother even Milburn too much to put them in the manifesto. After all, putting them in the manifesto and carrying them out are two different things; and many of the concessions were things which a New Labour government would probably have to carry out anyway because of European Union pressure, even without union agitation. But Barber is plainly worried that even those tiny sops will not be in the manifesto.

Uriah Heep type pleading for just a small concession here or there is no way forward for the unions in their dealings with Blair, any more than it is with the bosses.

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