OPINION: A yawning Cherie beats TUC's PR hands down

This year's TUC conference in Brighton promised to be tough going for the Government, but the event that generated much more publicity was the meeting with 'the Brothers' and Tony Blair the week before.

Number 10 was clearly worried that the TUC would add to the Prime Minister's woes, so invited them all in for beer and sandwiches in advance. A new forum was offered, at which issues such as foundation hospitals would be discussed. The new TUC general secretary, Brendan Barber, was delighted, and so was Blair, who successfully took the sting out of criticisms he would face in Brighton.

Campbell may have resigned, but the Government still knows how to pull off a good PR coup. It's a pity the same couldn't be said about the TUC.

The unions have slowly got their PR act together over the past decade, establishing strong communications departments. Some, like Amicus, where Derek Simpson is the new general secretary, can even match the Labour machine. The TUC itself, though, seems to have lost its way.

The departure of John Monks, who did so much to modernise the TUC, gave the organisation the chance to move up a gear, but instead of seizing the opportunity, they seem to have moved backwards.

When the TUC marched into Downing Street last week, a BBC reporter talked about 'the Brothers' visiting the PM. I initially thought this was typical male chauvinist reporting until I realised the TUC delegation didn't include one woman and the only black face was Bill Morris's, who retires in a month's time. Surely the TUC PR machine should have ensured women were present- after all, they keep telling us women represent more than half the workforce. Indeed, the only significant dispute this year involved mainly female British Airways staff, who took the unions by surprise in staging an unofficial walkout, creating havoc at Heathrow. Even here the unions couldn't get it together, falling out with each other more than with the employer.

What has struck me most in Brighton has been the lack of media presence.

Sure, all the Westminster mob came down for Blair and Brown on Tuesday, but apart from that you could be forgiven for not knowing the TUC conference was taking place this week. Breakfast with Frost didn't even want to interview the new general secretary on Sunday, plumping instead for one of the so-called 'awkward squad', Tony Woodley. With the conference starting on Monday, you might expect the Today programme would have the TUC general secretary as its main guest, but they chose Iain Duncan Smith instead.

You couldn't think of a more humiliating snub. No doubt the TUC press department will blame the media for this, but they will only report the TUC positively if it has something new to say. All the TUC press department could come up with was Barber telling us we work too long hours - about as original as Bob Crow announcing another rail workers' ballot for industrial action. The main lead in The Guardian wasn't much better for the TUC.

It reported that the unions had scuppered plans for a long-term financial package for Labour. Is it any wonder that Blair is now talking about state funding, making the unions even more irrelevant?

The PM was probably quite happy to have dinner with 'the Brothers' on Tuesday night, knowing that they pose little threat to him - particularly on the PR front. He got a much worse reception at the Braemar Highland Gathering with the Queen, where he was booed and jeered by the locals.

Thankfully for Blair that was one PR disaster missed by the London media, which were only interested in the picture of his wife yawning.

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