Eyes on PM over test of his authority

CHRIS FISHER, EDP Political Editor Gordon Brown has no wish to give ground to trade union power and cannot afford to, politically or economically. And anyone who supposes otherwise hasn’t been concentrating properly over the past 10 years, says political editor Chris Fisher.

CHRIS FISHER, EDP Political Editor

Gordon Brown has no wish to give ground to trade union power and cannot afford to, politically or economically. And anyone who supposes otherwise hasn't been concentrating properly over the past 10 years, says political editor CHRIS FISHER.


The prime minister signalled in the clearest terms to prison officers yesterday that industrial action will win them no concessions on pay.

In particular, he emphasised that there will be no going back on the decision to implement their 2.5pc pay increase in two stages. It was his decision (as chancellor) in the first place, and he's sticking to it. The phasing of public sector pay rises was ” to keep inflation under control, he said.

Mr Brown did not beat about the bush. “We have succeeded in tackling inflation and having a stable economy because of discipline in pay over the last 10 years. That discipline will have to continue. Staging of pay awards is an essential part of the economy to ensure we have stability and so that can continue. We will not do anything to put that at risk”, he declared.

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In speaking in such forceful terms he was seeking to take on and destroy, at the first sign of serious trouble, the notion that compared with his predecessor he will be a soft touch for the unions in general and those in the public sector in particular.

It is a serious indictment of the unions that anyone with senior authority or influence in their midst should be labouring under such a delusion about him. Who do they think has been running the economy - and imposing public sector pay discipline - for the past decade? Do they really suppose that over all that time Tony Blair was forcing Mr Brown to impose pay restraints that he was opposed to or was in two minds about?

The current prime minister ran the policy by choice and insistence. He has no intention of changing his approach. And he is acutely aware that early signs of weakness and of a readiness to appease could lead to very serious damage not only to the economy but also to his prospects of leading his party to another general election victory.

It's like a teacher with a new class. If someone quickly challenges his (or her) authority, the way it is handled is liable to have profound consequences for better or worse. If he slaps the challenger down (metaphorically these days) and imposes his will, he will probably be able to keep control for the rest of the year and subsequently. But if he avoids confrontation and backs off, things are likely to go from bad to worse.

The initial union challenge to Mr Brown's authority as prime minister has come from the prison officers. But they are far from alone in possessing a sense of grievance. Many thousands of other public sector workers, including nurses, also feel they are being hard done by.

The unions representing them will be watching the government's response to the prison officers like hawks. Any sign of concessions costing more money overall will be pounced on, understandably, with a desire to secure equal treatment. If the wall is breached, lots of other public sector groups will attempt to charge through it.

It doesn't mean there can be no flexibility. But Mr Brown must stand solidly by his decision to provide only 2pc this year for pay rises in the public sector - a limit that he has adamantly said requires the phasing of pay increases. If he steps backwards on these key issues he could quickly find himself in very boggy territory.

There is already some talk about an autumn and winter of discontent like that of 1978-79. But those who had the misfortune to live through the real thing may well think it's like comparing an ice cube to the Arctic.

The circumstances today are very different indeed. In the 1970s the British economy was the laughing stock of much of Europe, and the unions had great power. After Labour regained power in 1974 they were effectively taken into the process of government. And when that arrangement finally broke down - over pay - towards the end of 1978, the consequences included mountains of uncollected rubbish and even unburied bodies.

The spectacular bust-up between a Labour prime minister (Jim Callaghan) and the trade union movement also led to 18 years of Tory government. With the winter of discontent still fresh - actually, rancid - in the minds of voters, Margaret Thatcher won power in the May 1979 election.

Had Callaghan gone to the country - as common sense had been screaming at him to do - in the autumn of 1978, before the excrement hit the fan, the Thatcher revolution might not have occurred.

Mr Brown will have strong memories of those nightmare days for Labour. And they may play on his mind as some advisers urge him to call a snap election this autumn, others tell him he should wait until next spring, and the unions start trying to put a squeeze on him and his government.

If he decided to 'go to the country' early, industrial action by protesting unions could cause a swing to the Conservatives. But if he waited, deepening trouble with the unions could - shades of 1978-79 - completely scupper him.

The analogy seems a frail one to me, however. The unions are much weaker than they were almost 30 years ago, and generally speaking their members are substantially better off after 10 years of uninterrupted economic growth under Labour governments. Many of them, of course, are owner-occupiers and have substantial mortgage commitments.

Do large numbers of these people really fancy getting in heavy industrial action? Against a prime minister who can't give in and has no wish to do so anyway?

The prime minister has already been thinking of clipping the powers the unions still have over decisions at Labour's annual conferences. His resolve on that may well be strengthened by old-fashioned confrontational talk and displays of muscle-flexing by public sector unions.