Interview: Brendan Barber

What’s the worst thing you can do when interviewing the leader of Britain’s union movement? Admit you’re not a union member, of course.

“Shame on you!” barks the Trades Union Congress’ general secretary. “Terminate this interview immediately!”

Brendan Barber is joking, of course. He’s perfectly aware union membership is weaker in the private sector and that one of his “biggest challenges” is addressing this problem. He also has a sense of humour.

This is probably a good thing, given his relationship with the current government. His speech at the TUC conference earlier this month was laced with criticism of the government’s below-inflation public sector pay awards. And don’t even mention the windfall tax that never was.

“Fairness” is what’s it’s all about, especially in this tough economic climate, he says. “Clearly we’re very concerned with living standards of people who are coming under real pressure,” he says. “People are worried and are looking to the government to demonstrate that they can help ease these problems.”

Mr Barber is happy to use the ‘fairness’ tag, a key word for the conference’s themes, to his own ends. He wants “fairness in the tax system” to become a big priority for the government. “The public finances are going to be tight and that’s already evident in the figures with the level of government debt exceeding the 40 per cent limit,” he says.

There’s a hint of sympathy here for Labour’s predicament. Certainly Mr Barber has a transformative quality about him; he is far from the determined, government-slaughtering monster unleashed to give his general secretary’s speech in Brighton. Perhaps this is because of his circumstances. We are in the mini-office secreted behind the TUC stand in the exhibition hall, a tiny space with barely room for a small table and two chairs. The hubbub of the conference swirls around, but here Mr Barber has his own small space. The caged monster, reflecting, is much more on Labour’s side than you might have been forgiven for thinking.

“What strikes me over the couple of days since delegates assembled here is the mood is pretty serious, but it’s pretty united as well,” he muses.

“People want to get behind the government in tackling what are big, big challenges. I think in a way that’s not been the case for a number of years it’s the economy that’s at the heart of the challenges. The government needs to get to grips with it. The mood [at conferece] I think is solidly behind it.”

And what about the Conservative party? Does Mr Barber have anything to say that’s positive about them? Not really.

“[They] don’t really have anything clear to say at all. Would it help having a Conservative government? No. No, I don’t think that for a moment.”

Hostility towards the Conservatives is nothing new for a union leader, of course, but there is still some bite there. Mr Barber gets most worked up about the “culture of impunity” he believes exists among some employers. They’re the real enemy.

“They don’t feel they’re going to get caught,” he presses. “They’re underpaying people, they’re taking on unreasonable deductions, they’re ripping people off on a massive scale.”

This is all good, solid union stuff. He points out it’s not entirely simple either: many big companies “turn a blind eye” to unacceptable practices undertaken by contractors, muddying their otherwise exemplary practices.

It’s at this point I make my union gaffe. But, after the initial humour, Mr Barber takes on a serious tone.

“We’re having to try to break into areas where traditionally the union has been pretty weak,” he explains.

“The growth area of the economy has been private sector areas. In sectors where arrangements are often casualised – the hotel industry, for instance – there’s a hell of a lot of temporary, casual short-term contracts. Our unions are doing a hell of a lot to start to focus on reaching out and building an organisation in those areas.”

We’ll skip straight past the closing section of the interview, when I invite Mr Barber to persuade me to join the National Union of Journalists. Unsurprisingly he does an amazing job – it turns out unionised areas have a lot of benefits attached to them, the sort of “mainstream obvious things” that somehow hadn’t occurred to me.

It’s the ultimate sales pitch: the equivalent of a head of state inviting you to come and live in their country. “They don’t come about by magic, just by joining a union, but you are much more likely to get decent standards if you are in a union,” he finishes. How right he is, as millions will testify. Whether it’s on the level of the individual or the government, Mr Barber is on top of his game.

Brendan Barber was talking to Alex Stevenson