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Tuesday, 12 March, 2002, 13:59 GMT
Unions unconvinced by Blair
Prime Minister Tony Blair
Tony Blair wants to get a message across
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By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online political correspondent

Like the famous scene from Monty Python's Life of Brian, the trade unions are increasingly asking: "what has the Labour government ever done for us."

Ministers, of course, insist that if it had not been for them there would be no minimum wage, thousands of youngsters would still be without work and union recognition would never have been strengthened.

TUC general secretary John Monks
Union chief John Monks has met the Tories
Yet still the question is asked: "apart from the minimum wage, jobs and union rights - what has the Labour government ever done for us."

Probably more importantly, senior union figures are now asking what the government will do for them in the future.

And, as Tony Blair attempts yet again to get the government back on track and spell out his goals after weeks of difficulties, it appears they don't like the answers they are coming up with.

Sever ties

As a result they are covering their bets by talking to the opposition parties who, at the moment, are desperate to win friends wherever they can find them.

The fact that the question is even being asked speaks volumes for the way the relationship between Labour and the unions, which created the party, has changed.

Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy
Kennedy wooing unions
No one expects the unions to sever their ties with the Labour party, and many in the movement are fundamentally opposed to their leaders ever talking to the Tory party which, for 18 years, either ignored them or actively attempted to destroy them.

But there are deep seated fears in the union movement and amongst traditional Labour voters over the future of the public services, workers rights and welfare.

There is also the suspicion that the prime minister is not a great fan of the unions, that he is happy to take their cash - particularly in the run-up to general elections - but generally feels happier cosying up to big business.

His relationship with the likes of Bernie Ecclestone, the Hindujas and Lakshmi Mittal are seen as evidence of that.

Lost direction

And, no matter how often it is denied, many still believe he was talking about them when he spoke about the "forces of conservatism" and "wreckers".

The prime minister's latest speech - which Downing Street insists is not a re-launch - will have done little to calm those fears.

He accepted that the idea of New Labour was often seen as "controversial or unclear" and even appeared to accept it seemed to have lost direction.

But many will believe he again failed to spell out exactly what the party really stands for or what its ideological base is.

He also failed to spell out any concrete policies to tackle the problems in areas like the public services being highlighted by the union leaders.

His hope is that the speech will have reinvigorated his party and the wider Labour movement and will have stopped the talk of lack of direction.

So far, however, the signs are not good.

See also:

12 Mar 02 | UK Politics
New Labour 'enters third phase'
12 Mar 02 | UK Politics
Battle on for union support
05 Feb 02 | UK Politics
Number 10 denies 'wreckers' apology
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