Interview: John Edmonds: "We're Going Back to Being Trade Unionists." and There Will Be Trouble If the Politicians Don't Take Note
Richards, Steve, New Statesman (1996)
If the mood of John Edmonds is anything to go by, next week's TUC conference in Blackpool will have more political spice than in recent years. Ministers will be greeted warmly, certainly, but there will be palpable tensions.
Edmonds, who is president of the TUC this year as well as being general secretary of the GMB, the third largest union, personifies this ambiguity. His tone, bombastic on the conference platform, is conciliatory and reflective in conversation and yet by the end of the interview he has declared his opposition to most aspects of government economic policy, warned that ministers' approach to public sector pay is heading for a bloody finale reminiscent of a Greek tragedy, and has blown apart traditional perceptions of Messrs Blair, Brown and Mandelson.
This is softly spoken conversation with a hard edge.
His first answer to a general question about relations between trade unions and government is a good example. Edmonds wants to be upbeat, so he praises the access he and other trade-union leaders enjoy. But there is a caveat: at times there seems little point in meeting because there is no hope of persuading them to change course.
"Contrary to the ill-informed press comment we have regular meetings with the Prime Minister. The access is very good. And of course we meet other senior ministers regularly as well. But my impression is that, in a way which is unusual in British politics, this is a government absolutely determined to fulfil its manifesto in a very precise way. So trying to change policy in all those areas included in the manifesto is a waste of time and energy."
Such as? "The undertaking about income tax is a good example. Many of us believe that the refusal to put up income tax for high earners was a bad mistake, forcing the government away from fiscal measures and placing a higher priority on interest rates, what John Smith called a one-club policy. It's a very big mistake, but in a sense there's no point arguing about it because it's clear-cut and is not going to be amended, however compelling the economic arguments."
These exchanges are also clouded by ministerial suspicion about the motives of the trade-union leaders, according to Edmonds. They are there as representatives of the workforce, he insists, with no wider agenda. "We have real difficulty convincing senior ministers that what we care about is the workplace. They see us most of the time in the context of our relationship to the Labour Party and within the party. They are afraid that we are playing politics all the time behind the scenes, but we're actually straight and up front."
But however much the unions' formal ties with the Labour Party complicate their dealings with the government, Edmonds remains committed to the link. "I strongly oppose severing the link as it would mean the creation of a new political party."
This seemed a curious response, since the architects of new Labour have argued openly that they have created a new political party. "Well, they're wrong. I meet party members and see how they vote in NEC elections and so on. It's difficult to sustain that argument if you're talking about the membership at large where the instincts and values are very much the same as they've always been."
And the unions still hold 50 per cent of the votes at the party conference, which, Edmonds insists, works to the party leadership's advantage. In making this point, he underlines the current strategy of the TUC, which is to be largely supportive of the government in the hope that when dissent is expressed ministers act. "Our 50 per cent vote is still a powerful weapon and no one should underestimate its usefulness to the leadership. We work to an unwritten code, if you like, that we underplay our power and that our first instinct is to support the leadership. We know the damage caused by divisions.
"So for trade unions in a concerted way to oppose the leadership is a very, very important signal. …