Inside out

Inside out - Blair seems more at home leading the war on terrorism or planning the invasion of Iraq than he does leading the attack on the new Scargillism.

by ANDREW NEIL, publisher of The Business and The Scotsman
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Blair seems more at home leading the war on terrorism or planning the invasion of Iraq than he does leading the attack on the new Scargillism.

Bob Crow, who recently took over the Rail and Maritime Transport union (RMT), has a way with farewell presents. When an executive with whom he had regularly negotiated left London Underground last year, he went to Toys 'R' Us and bought her the biggest dinosaur he could find.

Just to make sure she got the message, he pinned two union badges on it.

Crow is one of a new breed of hard-left union leaders who don't mind being regarded as dinosaurs. Standing in a picket line outside the Tube, he borrows a chant from the supporters of Millwall, his favourite football team: 'Nobody likes us, we don't care.'

A growing number of militants are taking over Britain's unions: Andy Gilchrist of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), which has excelled itself with a ludicrous demand for a 40% pay rise; Dave Rix, who heads the other main rail union, Aslef; and Derek Simpson, who defeated the Blairite Sir Ken Jackson to take over Amicus, the UK's second-largest union.

The hard left is also in charge of the postal and telecoms union, a major civil servant union, the journalists' union and university lecturers.

Crow, Gilchrist and their like are a throwback to the pre-Thatcher era, when union dinosaurs roamed the land and strikes were 10 a penny. They have as much regard for Tony Blair and New Labour as they had for Margaret Thatcher's Tory governments - that is, none.

I had experience of pre-Thatcher unions when the Sunday Times and sister papers fought a 13-month battle against the print unions for the right to operate a new printing plant in Wapping. We'd invested more than pounds 60 million and negotiated with the unions for years - but they refused to go. At one stage a union leader threw a box of matches at me and said: 'You might as well burn Wapping down; we will never go there.'

Like these militants before them, today's new breed of union leaders prefer to strike first, negotiate later. Crow closed the Tube four times over the summer, till London mayor Ken Livingstone caved in. Last month the FBU began a national strike in pursuit of its 40%. Other left-wing leaders are preparing to flex their industrial muscle.

The conventional wisdom is that this does not represent a return to the infamous Winter of Discontent of 1978-79, which brought down the Callaghan government and consigned Labour to the wilderness for 18 years. Maybe so, in that we are unlikely to see mass picketing, power blackouts, uncollected rubbish in the streets, three-day work weeks and the dead lying unburied.

But we are becoming more strike-prone - days lost in strikes this year are five times higher than last year - and the swing to the hard left in the labour movement is as much political as it is industrial.

The far left has all but given up on the Labour party, regarding it as an irredeemable convert to capitalism in its New Labour guise. It still harbours hopes of moving the party left once Blair goes, but for now it is concentrating its manpower and resources on infiltrating the upper reaches of the unions.

The militancy is largly a public-sector phenomenon. Now that Gordon Brown has opened the public spending floodgates, public-sector workers think it's their turn for big pay rises and better conditions. This makes them prone to follow militant leaders.

Blair's push for public-sector reform threatens their cosy work arrangements and low productivity. So the militants are galvanising workers against using private-sector firms and cash in the London Underground, NHS, schools and other public services.

They are also demanding the renationalisation of the railways, air-traffic control and the utilities. Blair won't bow to that, but he needs radical reform of the public sector if he is to deliver on his promise of better schools and hospitals. Yet at the Labour party conference, the left won a vote against the policy of using private money to finance public services.

A strong government could see the militants off, and this is a strong government. But it does not do industrial disputes well: when it has confronted the unions, it's been hesitant. That's because, bar John Prescott, New Labour lacks people who know much about strikes or unions. The bad old days were long gone before its leading lights came to political maturity.

Blair seems more at home leading the war on terrorism or planning the invasion of Iraq than he does leading the charge against what Thatcher once called 'the enemy within'. He struggles to find the appropriate no-surrender rhetoric. He recently railed against the 'return of Scargillism' in the unions, a reference to Arthur Scargill, the Marxist leader of the coalminers who was defeated by Thatcher.

A Scargillite threat requires a Thatcherite response, and of that there is no sign from the Government. It is going through the motions of talking tough against the militants, but its heart does not seem to be in it.

It must be, before the new militants become too strong and a return to the Winter of Discontent becomes reality.

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