Unions tighten the screws on Lib Dems

By Alex Stevenson

Britain’s trade unions are aiming to exploit “unease” within the Liberal Democrat party, TUC general secretary Brendan Barber has told politics.co.uk.

The union leader suggested left-leaning members of the junior coalition party could be persuaded by an “alternative” to the sweeping spending cuts set to be announced in next month’s comprehensive spending review.

At a fringe event at the Lib Dem autumn conference in Liverpool some party members responded with frustration to the unions’ advances, however.

Mr Barber said union leaders were determined to warn the Lib Dems about the “enormous damage” cuts will have on public services.

“In the general election campaign they supported the analysis that it was too early to think about cuts, that their priority was to get a recovery in place,” he told politics.co.uk.

“They were persuaded to shift that position to make the coalition come together but there’s a lot of unease among the ranks of the Lib Dems.
We want to build as much pressure as we can on the government, and that includes Lib Dem members of the government.”

Mr Barber said public anger at the scale of the cutbacks expected to be announced on October 20th would only come after that date.

“We’re going to be campaigning very strongly to take the message of an alternative to every part of the country,” he pledged.

“There’s been a lot of media focus on the potential for disputes and strikes – but the primary focus is trying to build political change.
We don’t want to alienate the public. We want to build public support.”

Mr Barber participated in a fringe event alongside the Unite union’s assistant general secretary Gail Cartmail, who offered an “invitation”
to Lib Dems not to forget the tradition of liberals like David Lloyd George and social reformer William Beveridge.

“I think it’s our responsibility, those of us who really passionately believe in fairness, to give hope to our communities, not to break them,” she told delegates.

The event saw friction between the unions and the Lib Dems, however.

One Lib Dem responded with frustration, telling the panel to applause:
“We’ve been in the government for 13 weeks… We are tired of being criticised when we’re doing a bloody good job.”

Another complained that he had been called a “yellow Tory” by a Unite official. He asked: “Isn’t it time the trade unions acted a bit more responsibly?”

Mr Barber said he wanted to engage with the Liberal Democrats. “We want a constructive dialogue with all parties,” he replied.