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How to sack Blair

Tony Woodley, new head of the TGWU, tells Jasper Gerard that he and other union leaders will take back the Labour party

2 August 2003

12:00 AM

2 August 2003

12:00 AM

Tony Woodley, the new head of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, intends to make sure that Tony Blair suffers. His plan is to call a meeting of top union guns and instigate a new form of entryism that will select left-wing, union-friendly parliamentary candidates. After this, he will concentrate on ousting Blair from the union.

Woodley’s antipathy to Blair is such that he is to instigate a review of all 91 MPs on his payroll to determine which ones are ‘too close to the gaffer’ (a wonderfully evocative phrase, this, rarely heard since the high old days of the three-day week). Anyone whose loyalty is doubted could find that their union days are numbered. So Blair, who only last year opened the new Transport House, the union’s London HQ, faces the sack.

Although the nearest the Prime Minister ever came to manual work as a barrister was untying the red ribbon of his generously paid briefs, he is, still, ludicrously, a member of the Transport and General Workers’ Union and it is very valuable for him to remain so. The association helps finance his election to Parliament, as well as giving him something to talk about when he swings by his club, the Deaf Hill Working Men’s.

Officially unions no longer ‘sponsor’ MPs – Lord Nolan objected as the term implied that politicians were for hire – but in practice MPs remain compromised. Remember how embarrassing it was for John Prescott when he was invited to leave the RMT, along with his grace-and-favour flat, after it became apparent that his integrated transport policy amounted to little more than changing from one chauffeur-driven Jaguar to another? Well, being PM, Blair will find his sacking far more humiliating.

‘We are not going to support a person if he is totally pushing policies contrary to ours,’ says Woodley. ‘Why should we? MPs should understand that when they buy in. These people are quick enough when they want support. It’s not just financial. We get out and work for people. You can’t have the penny and the bun; Labour wants our support but not our view. Our MPs must support our aims, values and priorities. We will review our links with those who don’t.’ Does Blair support those aims? ‘Not mine, no. We have 91 MPs, and we haven’t had the ingenuity to communicate with them. That is going to change under my leadership.’


As with so much else. Sir Bill Morris, the outgoing TGWU general secretary, was not exactly an intellectual powerhouse of New Labour, but Blair had him just about house-trained. Woodley heads a new generation of union leaders, who are shrewder and less easily charmed. Even opponents pay tribute to how he masterminded the saving of Rover, juggling calls between City bankers and Bavarian industrialists. All the while Stephen Byers, the minister supposedly responsible, seemed content for all that was left of Britain’s motor industry to be flogged to an asset-stripper. And it is this tactical cunning that Woodley will bring to his summit of other new, hard-nosed union leaders. ‘I am not looking for a knighthood,’ he says pointedly.

Woodley’s strategy is a version of the ‘Entryism’ which was pioneered by Militant in the 1980s, with alarming success. The plan is for each of the major unions to pay for six politically motivated activists to join every constituency Labour party. This would actually see union donations increase, overturning the strategy of many unions to reduce funding to Labour. The TGWU already gives Labour £1.4 million a year (more than Bernie Ecclestone and other dodgy donors combined). ‘When the big four [unions] meet, there is a thought – and I’m not against this – that we may put more money in: we may affiliate more members to Labour. I have a view that if the top six unions all decided to affiliate six people each to each constituency party, boy, that would make a difference. In some constituency parties at the moment you might find two men and a dog turn up.’ So it could give you scores of MPs? ‘Spot-on.’

Thus, after a period of separate bedrooms, the unions and Labour could once again enjoy full marital relations, but this time with unions on top. As another godfather put it, keep your friends close but your enemies closer still. Woodley may head an extremist bunch of union bruisers, but unlike Bob Crow, the boneheaded RMT leader, he realises the value of cajoling as well as bullying.

He left school at 15, devoting his productive working life to assembling the Vauxhall Nova, but even managers have been forced to concede that he has the tactical acumen of Napoleon (before his foray to Moscow). As such, Woodley has no time for Crow’s policy of disengagement with Labour: ‘I believe in doing it from within rather than crying from the sidelines. You’ve got to be pragmatic. But it doesn’t change your politics, does it?’

New Labour should not make the mistake of thinking that Woodley is one of those fast-disappearing Blairite union leaders who consider it rather vulgar to call a strike. ‘If you haven’t won a dispute in eight weeks, you want locking up, frankly,’ he says. Privately he is appalled by Andy Gilchrist, the firefighters’ leader, not because he disagrees with the cause, but because Gilchrist lost. And in a warning to the TUC, he says, ‘It’s got a new breed of union leader to contend with. We aren’t looking for patronage. And let me make this clear: people in the TUC had better understand the pecking order is back.’

Gulp. Woodley is a slender, wiry-haired, softly-spoken fellow, so his forceful language comes as a shock. As Jack Dromey, Harriet Harman’s old man, must reflect, Woodley beat him to lead Britain’s most venerable union. New Labour, Woodley declares, is ‘finished. Even Tony Blair will wake up: if you want to stay in power, some time you have to start listening. Labour is forgetting its core values. And until now I think the trade-union movement has done the same.’

Industrial partnership, he declares, is finished. ‘I had a very interesting conversation with an executive from BP, who said to me, “We were wrong. We realise now there is an ‘us and them’.” And I thanked him for his honesty.’ I hear this with mounting depression. Does he not reflect that such confrontation led to the destruction of manufacturing that unions have bemoaned ever since? Does he not recognise that, with every new cost our producers incur, another job has been exported to China?

The alarming thing is that he does. ‘But Germany showed that industry doesn’t need to be cheap and cheerful.’ Perhaps that was true. But now the West does have to be cheap, very cheap, and nobody is having a more painful lesson in this than Germany. Eventually China, even Africa, may one day become as bloated as Britain with social costs, but until then we cannot pretend that competitiveness doesn’t matter.

But in Woodley, Blair has met his match.


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