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The corridors of power...

Only five weeks ago, a ‘summer of discontent’ was being predicted after the first national strike by council workers since the 1970s.

But then in early August, local authority employers caved in, offering nearly 8% over two years. Even Aslef, after industrial action in the north west, is heading back to the bargaining table. The annual gathering at the Trades Union Congress this week is probably nothing like as fraught as Labour ministers were fearing.

But they know there is industrial trouble ahead still. Strikes are threatened this autumn by fire service and postal workers. Left wingers have replaced Labour loyalists in a number of unions.

The first thing Derek Simpson, Ken Jackson’s successor at the head of Amicus, did was out himself as a eurosceptic. Mick Rix, hard left leader of Aslef, has been issuing public warnings to Blair over Iraq.

Military action would be his Suez, said Rix. It’s an interesting analogy.

After the British military adventure in Egypt in 1956, prime minister Anthony Eden fell, but the Tories went on convincingly to win the subsequent general election.

Labour needs the unions’ money as its desperate pleas this summer have proved but it does not need aggravation and the logic of Blairism has long pointed to sundering the historic relationship between the two ‘wings’ of the labour movement sooner or later.

But the immediate question posed by the unions to the government is economic rather than political. Unions still play a significant role in setting the ‘going rate’ for pay, even in the private sector where they are now so weak.

Gordon Brown has been lucky but he is no magician. Nearly all his calculations rest on the maintenance of wage restraint, meaning the rate of increase of real wages staying beneath the medium run rate of economic growth.

  • David Walker writes for The Guardian.

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