The Joker Returns

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Deep inside Silvio Berlusconi's batcave, did the demon Bliar really imagine that all he needed to do was to round up a few other cartoon baddies like Milburn and Mandelson to startle the nation and, with another whirl and spin, the rest of us would forget all about the war in Iraq?

Or that we would all be bamboozled by his nauseating, ever so humble performance at the TUC - which in every previous year he had always treated with absolute contempt?

A few years ago a speech from the PM would still have generated a polite ovation. Not any more. For the most part, delegates sat in stony silence and, as the BBC's Nick Assinder reported, even when promised that the government would not renege on pledges in 'the Warwick agreement' made in June, 'they were far from overcome with excitement or gratitude'.

What seems to have escaped the New Labour policy wonks is that trying to shift the focus of the debates that are likely to take place in the run-up to a general election away from the war and onto domestic issues does not necessarily make anybody feel much better. Most right thinking punters are every bit as pissed off with privatisation, tuition fees and government-inspired hysteria over the 'war on terror' as they have been appalled at the unremitting carnage in Iraq.

Even for a Blair at his smooth talking best, winning the hearts and minds of a hostile TUC was never going to be easy - the forked tongue being especially visible given that all the pally chat came at the same time as 104,000 civil servants face the sack.

But that would be to miss the point. Blair's main purpose was to lend credibility to the Big Four union leaders whose loyalty to the Labour Party has been put under enormous stress in the last couple of years because of their own members' bitterness at New Labour's agenda. This anger has erupted on the industrial front in the last few weeks with very successful strikes on the Yorkshire buses and at British Airways. And the political expression has been evident in the sensational results for Respect candidates in Stepney and Millwall.

Despite all the assertions of still being completely in charge and raring to go, Blair is actually up to his eyeballs in the brown stuff and that is the real reason why, as one commentator put it, 'he presented delegates in the Brighton conference centre with a notably different prime minister from the one they have come to expect... there was no lecturing, threatening or casting aside. And there was absolutely no reference to the "forces of conservatism" or "wreckers".' Calculated, deliberate and utterly self-serving as usual, the distinct shift of tone adopted by Blair actually marks the culmination of a long spell of backdoor scheming all designed to bring leaders of the four biggest unions - Amicus, Unison, the TGWU and GMB - back on board in the run-up to an election. Those with any sense inside the New Labour machine realise that the support of the Big Four is absolutely essential. Like it or not, the party still relies heavily on union cash to survive. If the recent disaffiliations of the RMT and FBU were to spread to the GMB, Labour HQ would be driven to panic stations. The Big Four are every bit as important when it comes to the Labour Party conference because of the block voting system. Yet according to one 'senior union figure' quoted in the Guardian, 'The new generation of union leaders don't have any personal loyalty to Tony Blair... they may not have moved against him over Iraq, but the war legitimised their thinking that they owe him nothing and they don't have to be deferential towards him.'

But rather than press home their advantage and blow Blair out of the water, leaders of the Big Four - and Brendan Barber of the TUC - have settled for a bit of pretty shabby horse trading. Tony Woodley of the TGWU made this clear in the Morning Star on the same day as Blair's speech to the TUC: 'The disappointments the movement has with the government's record - and there are many - will be tempered by the realisation that we have to work for a Labour victory at that election, whenever it comes.'

In the weeks since the Warwick agreement leaders of all the main unions have gone out of their way to talk up the concessions which they said had been made by the government. Woodley claimed that ministers had made 'several significant concessions'. Similar claims have been repeated by Prentis, who states categorically that the net result of the concessions made at Warwick is that 'it will be harder for PFI to be carried out at the expense of the workforce and that it will be easier to invest in public services without using PFI'.

Yet the Warwick agreement is not really an agreement at all. It is more a shopping list of demands put in front of the Labour Party chairman, Ian McCartney: issues from skills training to rights of migrant workers, action to tackle workplace violence and uprating of redundancy. All very laudable aspirations in their own right (56 of them in all) but you will have a job finding a copy of an actual agreement anywhere, least of all from the Labour Party.

One or two very minor concessions have been made on employment rights at Labour's conference and some of these might even find their way into the manifesto, but what happens after that is anybody's guess. It certainly doesn't seem to fall into the category of 'major concessions', let alone herald the death knell of New Labour's market-driven manifesto. Away from the national policy forum, every other indicator points to the fact that both Number 10 and Number 11 Downing Street have not the slightest intention of budging from their 'reform agenda' for public services. Why bring Milburn and Mandelson back and why line up 104,000 civil servants for the sack if what you have in mind is to head for what Derek Simpson dreamily informs us is going to be a 'historic, radical and progressive third term'?

Warwick actually provides a very dangerous smokescreen for the government to neutralise the Big Four, all the better to leave Mark Serwotka and the PCS out on a limb. This would be a disaster for every other union. It would put the government's privatisation plans right back on track. Rather than spending hours listening to Wee Ian McCartney, the Big Four would be much better employed getting round a table with all the other unions in the TUC and making joint plans for mass demonstrations and strike action in defence of the PCS.