Mark Stuart: The band of brothers who aren't so fraternal any more

WITH the 42nd annual Congress of the TUC underway, the battle lines have already been drawn with the Government over job cuts and the future of public services.

In July, an invitation to the Business Secretary, Vince Cable was hastily withdrawn by the TUC, meaning that this will be the first time in more than a decade that a government minister has not spoken at the union movement's annual gathering.

Given the present climate of hostility, it seems as if the old corporatist model of tripartite co-operation between the Government, employers and the unions is well and truly dead.

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Margaret Thatcher put most of the nails in the coffin of co-operation, while John Major finally buried it completely, abandoning Harold Macmillan's National Economic Development Council, affectionately known

as "Neddy".

Tony Blair's relationship with the unions fared little better: while Labour Prime Ministers in years gone by used to meet with union leaders for "beer and sandwiches", Blair granted them only one significant meeting in Number 10 – over a glass of water.

One former TUC General Secretary, John Monks, claimed the ideal relationship between the Government and the unions should be one characterised by "fairness not favours", but in truth Blair always saw the unions as part of the problem, not part of the solution, getting in the way of his public service reforms.

Such was Blair's unpopularity with the unions that he spawned a new group of more militant trade unionists, who talk in the goobledegook of Fred Kite, the Communist shop steward brilliantly played by Peter Sellers in the classic 1959 film, I'm All Right Jack.

The likes of Derek Simpson (Unite), Bob Crow (RMT) and Reg Prentis (Unison) now head truly huge unions, which are

drowning out the more moderate voice of an increasingly marginalised TUC. And what's more, these "tightly-knit, politically motivated individuals", as Harold Wilson would have called them, seem hellbent on picking a political fight with the Government.

Bob Crow's sabre-rattling at

his union's annual conference in June was typical, calling for "general and co-ordinated strike action" to halt a "savage

assault on jobs". The

Government, he claimed, had "started this fight with the working class and we are up for it". He continued yesterday, following last week's London Underground strike. "RMT will take no lectures from Lib Dems like Vince Cable on posturing."

Meanwhile, members of the Public and Commercial Services Union, the fifth largest union in the UK, are engaging in industrial action over the government's plans to cut redundancy payments to civil service workers.

It seems as if there is no walk of life in which trade unions are not involved. Take a look at the TUC's final agenda and you will find a huge range of issues being discussed from equality to society to the economy and industry. Far too often the average union representative in the workplace seems more intent on fostering friendships with their Palestinian "brothers and sisters" than in improving working practices.

More broadly, modern government is now comprised of a plethora of organised sectional interests of which the unions form only one part. Together, they are smothering the ability of governments to achieve greater economic success and more efficient public services.

Nowadays, everyone seems to represent vested interests, while we the ordinary consumers, are largely forgotten. I didn't know for instance, until I looked it up, that the body supposed to represent the public in this area – the National Consumer Council – has been renamed "Consumer Focus"since 2008, but I've heard not a cheep from it in the last two years. Where is the champion of the consumer when damaging transport strikes grind the country to a halt? Why, in a liberal democracy, do sectional interests always seem to drown out the national interest?

Such questions should be put to the new Labour leader. If, as many pundits are now predicting, Doncaster MP Ed Miliband wins the leadership contest, then he will no doubt have the union barons calling at his door, demanding concessions from a future Labour Government.

The younger Miliband should resist such temptations. While Labour is bound to the unions

by tradition, and there is no question of breaking the link entirely, Miliband must not

allow himself to be seen to be aligned with the kind of union militancy that is about to be unleashed on the country over the next two years.

Trade unions are a legitimate part of our political system, but they should never again be allowed to become the dominant force within it as they were in the 1960s and 1970s. Instead, unions should concentrate on representing the interests of their members on pay and conditions in negotiation with employers, in the workplace, and not in Whitehall.