Peter Oborne

In the past the unions have turned on Labour prime ministers. They are winding up to do so again

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For the last 20 years the annual TUC conference has occupied a subsidiary role in the political season. During 18 years of Tory government, the unions carried no weight. Their autumnal seaside rumblings could be ignored with a clear conscience. Nor did they relinquish this peripheral role when Tony Blair first came to power five years ago. Trade union leaders were so delighted at a Labour government that they resolved to cause no trouble. This was roughly the state of affairs right up to Tony Blair's second election victory in June 2001.

It would be wrong, on the other hand, to assume that the unions were of no account during this 22-year period of comparative invisibility. They mattered desperately - but only for Labour. Fundamentally, the Labour party - even Tony Blair's New Labour - and the trade unions are one and the same thing. In many parts of the country the two are impossible to tell apart, either organisationally or financially.

This profound interdependence explains the paradox that, while it was undoubtedly the unions that destroyed Jim Callaghan's government in 1979, they saved the party in the years that followed. Labour was riven by far more damaging splits, and in 1983 received a sharply lower share of the vote than even the Tories got in 1997. But throughout this desperate time, the party was sustained by its solid organisational base in the unions. The real reason to fear for the long-term survival of the fractured post-1997 Tories is that no comparable support exists. It was once the case that business was as reliable a friend of the Conservative party as the unions have been for Labour. But capital has been fickle. Much of it has opportunistically fled to Tony Blair. One of the most bewildering dilemmas for modern Conservatives is who exactly they represent, beyond the morally dispossessed rentier class which continues to be responsible for the pervasive air of post-imperial nostalgia at the annual Conservative party conference.

There is one item of comfort for the Tories. The unions are good foul-weather friends for Labour, but fair-weather enemies. Long years of opposition teach them to be loyal. But there is something in the obscure dynamic that governs the relationship between the party and the unions which ruptures when Labour finds itself in power. The unions turned viciously on the serving Labour prime ministers in 1948, 1969 and 1979. They are winding up to do so again. The atmosphere at this conference in Blackpool is evil. It seeps menace for Tony Blair, and matters are only going to get worse.

The men at the top of the unions in 1997, like Rodney Bickerstaffe of Unison, were racked with guilt about the winter of discontent under Jim Callaghan. Not so the new generation that has emerged since. They are viscerally disenchanted, and sickened by the complacency and nepotism of the vanishing generation of union leaders. Late last week Andy Gilchrist, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, headed straight from Blackpool to a special conference in Manchester to agree the first national firefighters' strike ballot since the winter of 1977, when for nine weeks troops doused fires from Green Goddesses. The army is now grumpily in training for the same contingency; causing the MoD to leak that the military have the resources to fight fires or fight Saddam, but not both. Mr Gilchrist's supporters gleefully claim that this gives him the veto over a new Gulf war.

The new union leaders like Gilchrist are smarter, or at any rate hungrier, than the old generation. They are learning to work the system. Labour's National Policy Forum was set up by Millbank as a device to stifle debate, while creating the illusion among activists that they were playing their role in party democracy. The new unionists have learnt to adapt this classically Blairite piece of machinery to their own advantage. The new Left have transcended the territorial rivalries' networks that used to prevent union co-operation. Take the Fire Brigades Union rally in London a week ago, which paved the way for the Manchester conference; it was attended by Mick Rix of the train drivers' union Aslef (which wittily laid on a local strike preventing delegates from getting to, or for that matter leaving, Blackpool for two days last week), Bob Crow of the RMT railway workers' union, and Billy Hayes of the postal workers. Rix and Crow are coming to Gilchrist's aid by presenting ultimatums to rail employers threatening to walk out themselves when the firemen go on strike. Safety issues are cited, but the real agenda is plain enough. The same mob were plotting again at Mick Rix's Aslef dinner at Blackpool's Hilton hotel on Sunday: besides Rix, Crow and Gilchrist there were Mark Serwotka, the Trotskyite general secretary of the civil servants' union; Tony Woodley, deputy and likely successor to Bill Morris at the TGWU; and Jeremy Dear, whose emergence at the National Union of Journalists has coincided with a sharp increase in strikes at local papers.

There is no better measure of the change in mood in the unions than the fact that old John Edmonds of the GMB union suddenly looks like a member of the sensible tendency. Downing Street has examined ways of sidelining or ousting Edmonds for years. Now he is one of the handful of remaining pro-euro unionists, and his support was invaluable in the narrow defeat of an outright anti-war motion on Monday afternoon. Also playing a crucial role was the normally feral Bill Morris, who defied his own union executive to steer the TGWU block vote in favour of moderation. The debate itself was notable for an awe-inspiring eruption of old-fashioned anti-imperialist America-is-the-root-of-all-evil oratory.

It is too early to say what this means for Tony Blair. Unions inflicted great damage on Clement Attlee and Harold Wilson, and they did for Jim Callaghan. There is no doubt that a new and articulate group of trade union leaders see themselves as setting up the 'new opposition'. Furthermore, the Prime Minister faces the loss of allies in the unions who have provided him great service in the last five years. The first act of Derek Simpson, who recently ousted the cravenly Blairite Sir Ken Jackson from the head of the giant Amicus, was symbolic: he evicted the transport minister John Spellar from the comfortable office he had been given in the Amicus HQ.

But, to judge from his performance last week, Tony Blair could well turn the new terms of trade to his own advantage. The Prime Minister has very rarely put on a more adroit, and never a more mature, public performance than his Blackpool speech on Tuesday afternoon. He conceded nothing over Iraq, bar the promise to recall Parliament before the decision to fight: important and right but one that he had reached in any case. He spelt out the terms of the relationship Downing Street wants with the unions, skilfully sidelining the new Left as he did so. There is trouble ahead from the unions, buckets of it. It is a measure of Tony Blair's sheer political mastery that he may use Labour's next winter of discontent to place himself where he most likes to be: in the centre and as the voice of good sense.