In the early days of the Labour government when Tony could still
sell himself as the man to trust, it was of course customary for
him to regularly verbally whack the unions. Proof to middle-class
voters that New Labour wasn’t old.
The price paid – apart from damaging the democratic dialogue that
should exist between politicians and the elected representatives of
several million employees – is that it further fuelled, as Blair
knew it would, the myth propagated by the right-wing media, that
the unions are opposed to any reform in the public sector.
Now, a weaker and chastened Blair needs to woo rather than whack.
Last week, news emerged of months of effort to create a more
conciliatory approach between unions and government. It is a
fragile process, which may have already been tested to the point of
rupture during this week’s TUC annual conference.
One TUC proposal is the establishment of a public services forum to
discuss and amend changes before they are imposed. Blair should
respond positively. Much of the NHS overhaul has been foisted upon
union members with little if any consultation – hardly a modern
management route to achieving reforms that work.
Blair may learn through the forum how many unions themselves have
evolved not least because of the changing demands of their own
members. According to a recent TUC report, A Perfect
Union?, members expect unions to deliver not only on the
traditional agenda of pay and conditions but also in making work
interesting and enjoyable while co-operating “constructively” with
the bosses as “credible partners” to improve performance.
In a Fabian Society pamphlet published a year ago, The Courage
of our Convictions: Why Reform of the Public Services Is the Route
to Social Justice, Blair wrote: “I realise the huge task we
have to renew the spirit within our public services. I believe the
way to achieve it is by reforming the professions so that people
feel more fulfilled, more able to cope with the growing demands
placed upon them. [We need] a renaissance in the esteem and
effectiveness of public service – a new public service
Blair is good on rhetoric but, until now, he has been so autocratic
about the delivery of change, he has severely undercut his chances
of success. A public service forum would give him the opportunity
to understand public sector unions better – and to come to terms
with the realisation that, without their help, he’s doomed.