Bill Morris is a quietly spoken and cautious trade unionist. For someone who is often portrayed as part of the "old" Labour tradition it is rare for him to speak a word in public against the party leadership. Indeed Morris's views illustrate that the political shorthand of "new" and "old" is as inadequate as "left", "soft left" and "right" used to be: he backs the government's adherence to Tory spending targets and its commitment to low inflation, as well as its progressive social objectives.
On only one issue does the TGWU's leader raise the stakes. He is uncompromising in his determination to secure an acceptable framework for union recognition: "Trade union recognition is the key. We will judge the government, in terms of its relationship with the trade unions, over how it responds to this issue."
The bone of contention is not the principle, which the government supports, but how recognition should be brought about in the workplace. The CBI says a ballot should require more than half of those eligible to vote to say Yes. The TUC argues it should be more than half of those casting a vote, which is a much lower threshold. The CBI also wants companies with fewer than 50 employees to be exempt. Neither its formula on ballots nor the exemptions would be acceptable to Morris. "The CBI wants a much higher threshold than is required from any other democratic institution. We're looking for recognition based on the democratic principle of a majority of one from those taking part."
On other issues Morris is surprisingly conciliatory, but not on this: "This is a defining issue for trade unionists. There is simply no room for a compromise. The government will not be able to fulfil its commitment to fairness at work by legislating for bad employers, which is what a compromise would mean. It's a straightforward choice: either the government supports the CBI position or the TUC position. I know of no other issue to which working people have a greater expectation and it will be a major disappointment if we weren't treated the same as everyone else. We've accepted the doctrine of 'fairness not favours'. If we weren't to get recognition on the basis of fairness that would be an abdication of what was promised and what was right."
It is not Morris's style to issue threats of industrial disruption casually. But in the event of the trade unions losing this argument, he predicts an outbreak of unrest. At first he chooses his words carefully.
"If we are not treated fairly I suspect shop stewards would see a situation where they are demanding recognition and taking steps to get it, not in the conventional sense of a ballot, but on another basis."
What sort of steps? "To put it bluntly, I can see more industrial disputes arising as a way of securing recognition."
He reiterates that he'll be happy with fairness, provided others are not given favours. "We know that Rupert Murdoch would be upset, to put it mildly, if there was a statutory right of recognition. But it wasn't Mr Murdoch who voted in this government, it was the British people. We only ask for fairness and that Mr Murdoch should get no favours."
In order to grasp the importance Morris attaches to this issue, compare his responses to questions about the level of the minimum wage. He seems relaxed about the prospect of not getting his way on the precise details of its implementation. "We're delighted to have had for the first time the principle of a national minimum wage established. That is the most important development. It's making a statement that the government wants an assault on poverty and won't subsidise low pay. We will have a debate about the level and my members would be disappointed if we had to face a rate below [pounds]4, but the minimum wage is adjustable over time. You have the opportunity to fight another day."
He is opposed, though, to any exemptions on grounds of geography or age. "The idea of regional exemptions is off the agenda, so we can dismiss that, but we are fundamentally opposed to age exemptions. For those who are demonstrably in training there may be grounds for some sort of qualified exemptions, but you can't enact legislation on the basis of age exemption, particularly if you set it at 26. At the age of 26 most of us have done a lot of things. Some have died for their country much younger than that, so it would be quite wrong to impose a blanket exemption."
On other issues he is something of an evangelist for the government. The New Deal is presented as a proud act of Keynesianism. "The windfall tax was a tremendously courageous move. It is the biggest act of redistribution for many years. They probably won't call it Keynesian, but that's what it is. Clearly we need to strike a balance between the young unemployed and the long-term unemployed, who also have experience and who deserve a reassessment and enhancement of their skills. The Chancellor accepts this change of emphasis."
He anticipates the full co-operation of employers, the majority of whom "are genuinely concerned to give our young people a chance".
Unlike some union leaders who want Gordon Brown to increase overall spending next year beyond the limits planned by the last government, Morris urges caution. "We must stick to the limits set by the Tories in the first two years, but not their priorities. Health and education are the priorities now and we must continue to redirect resources in those two areas."
I ask him which departmental budgets should be cut in order to "redirect" the money. "That's for the Chancellor. I'm not managing the economy," he laughs.
He is looking for higher spending at the end of the two-year period, but even here he speaks the language of financial prudence: "We have to be careful not to release inflationary pressures, so any increase must be measured carefully."
Will he be calling for higher-than-inflation public-sector pay settlements after the first two years? Again he responds cautiously. "This is a government which is passionate about social concerns. You can't have good-quality public services without good public servants. We are not talking about dramatic, quantum leaps, but there has to be a start."
I repeat the question. "I prefer to state a general principle. Public servants have to be given a properly recognised status for the job they do."
I am curious about the gap between the passion with which Morris speaks about union recognition and the moderation that guides his approach to all other issues. Has he become a convert to new Labour economics? "I was born a socialist and will die a socialist. But I am also pragmatic. I see [pounds]5 billion on a windfall tax as redistribution. Is that new Labour in the current rhetoric? In the end the government will be judged on whether they deliver and I have every faith that they will."
He claims this is the view of his members. "For every one who says the government's a disappointment, 99 are saying so far, so good. The media say the honeymoon is over, but as far as the person in the street is concerned it's not true. They have hope and faith in the government."
So much so that Morris says he is unworried by the number of business leaders who have drinks at No 10. I wonder if he has been there. "I've been to Downing Street. The TUC has been to Downing Street. But I don't want my union to become an extension of government or an extension of any political party."
I suggest his attitude is a little unexpected as his union was formally linked to the Labour Party. He wants the relationship to continue he says, but I sense a wariness. "My union has taken a decision to be affiliated to the Labour Party and we will continue with that arrangement, but we will assess the relationship as it unfolds."
What does he mean by that? Somewhat evasively, he tells a joke: "It's like two male friends who have both been married for 40 years. One says: 'You have been married for 40 years, have you ever thought of divorce?' To which the other replies: 'Murder, yes. Divorce, never.'"…