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At the TUC

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When the Bank of England governor, Mark Carney, addressed the Trades Union Congress on Tuesday, the press bench at the side of Liverpool’s BT Convention Centre was full. Some national papers had several journalists in the hall, dividing their efforts between shorthand notes, tweets and other tasks. But as soon as Carney moved onto questions from the gathered delegates, reporters began to put their notebooks away and leave. It was a neat illustration of the link between the decline of industrial reporting and the surge in attention afforded to the City.

The day before, when the TUC general secretary, Frances O’Grady, spoke about ‘Downton Abbey Britain’, a handful of journalists reported on it from the conference hall, but many outlets relied on copy from the Press Association industrial correspondent Alan Jones. A live broadcast of O’Grady’s speech was interrupted by an announcement of the Duchess of Cambridge’s pregnancy.

Fleet Street used to be swarming with industrial and labour correspondents: most papers had several, and as a group they were considered more influential than the Parliamentary Press Gallery. As the former BBC industrial correspondent Nicholas Jones argues in The Lost Tribe of Fleet Street, industrials were better connected than political correspondents when Labour was in government in the postwar period. There are now only two industrial specialists employed by national papers: Mark Ellis for the Daily Mirror, and me for the Morning Star.

Events in Liverpool this week had crucial implications for Labour’s policy on rail renationalisation. The party had been hoping to placate rail unions ahead of the election with a compromise: under Labour, the state will bid against private companies for routes. But at a fringe meeting on Tuesday night, the Transport Salaried Staffs Association general secretary, Manuel Cortes, announced his union has ‘every intention’ of putting a resolution to the Labour party conference later this month calling for an end to franchising altogether.

There is no doubt that the TUC Congress is a less important event than it was thirty years ago. ‘There were twice as many members in those days,’ Nicholas Jones told me last week. ‘The TUC was a tremendous force. For a start, with so many nationalised industries you had national pay bargaining, so what the unions were demanding in this respect would be hugely influential.’ With privatisation and fragmentation, such agreements have collapsed – local authority schools are still covered, for example, but the swelling numbers of academies are not.

In 1984, Jones says, the Congress was crucial in determining the levels of support other unions would give the miners. Plenty of workers in dispute took condemnatory motions to Liverpool this week, but most were unanimously passed without controversy. The spirit was both courteous and non-committal.

Jones argues that the TUC’s unclear position on the ‘two major issues of the day’ – Scotland and Europe – is worrying for the labour movement’s relevance. Neither was discussed this week; one delegate told me a motion on EU membership was ruled out of order.

Individual unions have taken sides: the RMT, for example, has a strong anti-EU line, and recently voted to support Scottish independence – the news was broken by an SNP press release. The Labour Party issued a joint statement at the start of the week with a host of unions supporting a No vote. But the party’s two biggest affiliates – Unite and Unison – were noticeably absent.

‘How big is the union vote in Scotland?’ Jones asked. ‘In my day, we’d have known that, and the position taken by the TUC would be crucial. If the TUC is divided, sitting on the fence, that too is something we should know more about. This year’s Congress is deserving of more coverage than it will get.’

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