OPINION: Unions rally troops for conference season

For some time the highlight of TUC week for the comms professionals present has not been the speech by the Prime Minister, but the awards ceremony for the worst story written by a labour correspondent over the preceding year.

Whelan: ‘Things may not be as rosy in Bournemouth as the unions are threatening to block the PM’s party reform’
Whelan: ‘Things may not be as rosy in Bournemouth as the unions are threatening to block the PM’s party reform’

The so-called “golden bollock” award is normally won by a hack predicting something like another “winter of discontent” that never materialised. But this year looks like being the last of such awards, because the labour correspondent is a dying breed.

There are so few strikes that media have dispensed with these specialist writers and actually report little that the trade unions do (and despite the fact that more than five million of us still belong to them). For union PROs the absence of specialists presents a formidable challenge.

They were kept busy on Monday morning, following Gordon Brown’s address, by the presence of lobby writers keen to get comment from leading union officials. But the Westminster village disappeared back to London a few hours later. Even so the biggest public sector union Unison was rem­arkably restrained in this window of media int­erest, particularly after Brown had told them that pay restraint was here to stay. Unison comms head Mary Maguire may be wise enough to realise that a savage sound bite may win headlines, but will not impress a PM who will actually listen to them.

Unite – the merger between Amicus and the TGWU – has a tougher comms challenge because it currently has two leaders, although the joint general secretaries, Tony Woodley and Derek Simpson, get on well. The well-liked former head of Amicus’s press office Richard O’Brien will probably take over as head of the new union’s campaigning.

With so many mergers the TUC is also left in a spin. Brown’s decision to speak on the opening day blew out any chance of leader Brendan Barber making big news with his own address. A more media-savvy operation could have either asked Brown to come later in the week, or moved Barber’s keynote address elsewhere on the agenda.

Finally, Brown and his team left Brighton in a happy mood, having got away without being booed off the stage. But things may not be as rosy in Bournemouth in two weeks’ time as the unions are threatening to block the PM’s party reform programme.

I sensed a growing mood of ‘no compromise’ among the ranks and if they stick to their guns, Brown could face his first defeat in his first conference as party leader.

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