Magazine article The Spectator

The Unions Say the Health Secretary Has Sold out - So It's Time to Buy Shares in Alan Milburn

Magazine article The Spectator

The Unions Say the Health Secretary Has Sold out - So It's Time to Buy Shares in Alan Milburn

Article excerpt

Tony Blair has noisily proclaimed New Labour's independence from the unions ever since his election as Labour leader in 1994. Like many New Labour claims, this assertion is partly false. Just as it was impossible to understand the Macmillan government without a complex grasp of school, regiment and the extended connections of ducal houses, so it is with Labour and the unions.

To take only a handful of current exampies. The anti-euro pronouncements from Bill Morris, the leader of the Transport and General Workers Union, are interesting enough in themselves. But they become very much more important the moment you consider that Morris is the closest tradeunion ally of the Chancellor, Gordon Brown. Brown has drawn Morris deep into his counsels and went to the lengths of securing the trade-union leader a place on the court of the Bank of England. In return, Morris has been more than happy to make the TGWU block vote available on the far from infrequent occasions when the Chancellor, as becomes a great man, has felt the need to stitch up a political opponent or look after a friend. It is unthinkable that Morris would wade into the euro controversy now engulfing the Labour party without consulting very closely his friend the Chancellor.

Likewise the presence of John Spellar at the Cabinet table as transport minister is unfathomable until one knows that this primitive politician is the bridge between the government and Sir Ken Jackson, leader of the AEEU (now Amicus) trade union. Amicus has been the most cherished ally of New Labour from the start and has cheerfully involved itself in all sorts of skulduggery and intrigue on behalf of Tony Blair. It played a helpful role in securing Alun Michael the leadership of the Welsh Assembly, and tried to block Ken Livingstone's nomination for London's mayor. Its most signal and remarkable service in recent times was steamrollering Shaun Woodward through the nomination in the St Helens constituency.

In return Sir Ken Jackson can ask for just about any favour - promotion for Spellar was just a bauble - and Amicus's greatest stroke so far has been wrecking Tony Blair's and Paddy Ashdown's cherished plan for proportional representation. PR is the one major issue where the union has been out of line with government policy, and for a very good reason. PR would have wrecked Amicus's ability to place its favoured candidates (The Spectator writer Sion Simon was one of them) in safe seats and thus destroyed the basis of its power. So it had to be stopped. Faced with an ultimatum, Tony Blair realised that he needed Amicus more than the Liberal Democrats.

To take a third example of how nothing makes sense without understanding union power: the paralysis which continues to grip transport policy. The RMT transport workers' union - now engaged in industrial action at Waterloo station - imposed an iron grip during the first Blair administration. The railways minister (now deputy chief whip) was Keith Hill, who used to work as a research officer for the union. More striking still was the man in overall charge. John Prescott was not merely sponsored by the union; he had - and retains use of a flat owned by the RMT. The benefit, which he still refuses formally to disclose after an angry wrangle with the parliamentary standards commissioner Elizabeth Filkin, is worth an estimated 10,000 a year. …

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