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Tuesday, September 14, 1999 Published at 14:47 GMT 15:47 UK

UK Politics

Poet Blair addresses TUC

Tony Blair: Risks a rough ride from TUC

The prime minister has started a major speech at the TUC conference with a poem on Labour's relationship with the unions.

Tony Blair's poem began: "Every year this time of year I come to the TUC / And every year the press report there'll be a row between you and me / They say I'll come and beat a drum, unleash the annual cry / Change your ways, clean up your act, modernise or die."

It received a quiet response from union delegates, many of whom appeared to be slightly bemused.

But when he began his speech proper, Mr Blair stuck to the subject of modernisation, at which he had attempted to poke fun.

He warned unions that they must jettison "them and us" attitudes to industrial relations.

Mr Blair, who is the main guest speaker at the Trades Union Congress in Brighton, is telling delegates they must become champions of change and modernise their movement in the same way Labour transformed itself.

In an uncompromising message, he said that he governs for the whole country, not one section of it.

Lukewarm reception

But the prime minister may get a cool reception from union delegates.

[ image: John Monks: Leading criticism over 48-hour working week]
John Monks: Leading criticism over 48-hour working week
TUC General Secretary John Monks has warned Mr Blair he is headed for his "sharpest argument" with the government over the 48-hour week.

Trade Secretary Stephen Byers was also given a rough ride in Brighton on Monday by union leaders suspicious that the government plans to water down new employment laws.

Mr Byers is no darling of the union movement - he hit the headlines three years ago after briefing journalists about Labour plans to cut links with the unions - and he warned the conference the unions had to "modernise and reform".

He repeated the Labour mantra that there would be "fairness not favour" for the unions from the government and he attempted to head off the rows over working hours and the euro.

Jonty Bloom: "Tony Blair knows he can afford to alienate the old guard of the TUC"
But he received only a lukewarm reception and was left in no doubt that the government is facing serious revolts from unions over the Working Time Directive and the single European currency, which threaten to overshadow the entire event.

There are clear signs that, despite winning policies such as the social chapter, the 48-hour working week and the national minimum wage, many union members are worried that the government is weakening them.

Many fear ministers are listening too much to business and not enough to their traditional supporters.

But while the row rattled around the conference centre, the underlying tide is clearly running in Mr Blair's favour.

After his criticisms, Mr Monks went on to make a conference speech on the need for modernisation that could have come from the mouth of a New Labour minister - and much of it did later when Mr Byers spoke.

He talked of having a dream of a transformed union movement which offered new services and had ended internal squabbling over membership.

And the told delegates they should not be afraid to "think the unthinkable" from time to time.

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