The rows at Labour's spring conference in Cardiff last weekend signal the end of the truce between the government and certain union leaders that has existed since 11 September. Remember the morning of that day? Delegates were gathering at the Trades Union Congress and preparing for a huge battle over public services. Tony Blair was to speak, and union leaders were lined up to condemn privatisation and savage the government's priorities.
Then came the attack on the World Trade Centre, and the union leaders went silent. Last weekend confrontation began again. It was the government which fired the opening shots. New Labour ministers launched a four-pronged assault. It was designed to sell private involvement in public services, and to rubbish the unions which oppose it. The major speeches-from Prescott, Blunkett, Byers and Blair-hammered away at this single theme.
Each time there was outrage and resistance. On Friday of last week deputy prime minister John Prescott attempted a jokey camaraderie that has often worked at Labour conferences. This time he was a complete failure. There was total silence as he praised PFI schemes. Some delegates even walked out. Flustered and embarrassed, Prescott added, 'Before I go, let me say thank you to all of our staff working to improve public services.' For the only time during his speech there was applause. Next it was home secretary David Blunkett.
His message was, 'Don't blame us for public services. We have devolved power to hospital trusts, transport firms and school governors.' Again the delegates boiled with rage. 'The whole problem is precisely that the government have handed over control to fat cats. It's a process they could reverse and they won't,' delegate Angela Harrison told Socialist Worker.
The third speech came from Stephen Byers, the transport and local government secretary. He unveiled the term 'reformers versus wreckers'. Byers' aides said union leaders were among those 'resisting the government's agenda for reform', and that the government was ready to 'take them on'. Byers' press secretary Jo Moore (famous for saying that 11 September was a 'good day' for burying bad news) confirmed that his attacks had 'included some people in the movement'.
Blair's speech underlined the 'wreckers' theme. It was so unpopular that dozens of delegates held up 'Keep public services public' signs provided by the Unison union. Of course there was loyal applause at the end. But there was no enthusiasm. 'I used to distrust Blair-now I resent him. I think he is from another class, another side, another party,' a GMB union delegate told Socialist Worker. That is a widespread feeling.
Consider the two biggest fringe events around the Cardiff conference. One was the 'Defend public services' rally addressed by the union leaders. Hundreds of delegates crammed in as union general secretaries competed to be the most bitter and furious about the ministers' remarks. The other big event was when around 300 people came to a march organised in support of the Friction Dynamics strikers in North Wales who were sacked, quite legally, after eight weeks on strike.
Most of those on the march were not conference delegates. But the protest had a huge impact inside the conference centre.
There was great support for the strikers, and frustration that after five years of New Labour the anti-union laws are still so harsh. Last weekend's clashes are not the end of the matter. The government is not backing off. Prescott went on television to repeat his pro-privatisation message.
He told the BBC on Sunday that private firms were more likely to be efficient because they were driven by the profit motive. The feeling against privatisation was, for many delegates, part of a much more general unease about the government. This included the conduct of the war against Afghanistan and the way Blair trails behind Bush.
There was much comment about how appropriate it was that the conference was held at the Cardiff International Arena, known by most locals by its initials, CIA. Of course, it will take a lot to make union leaders turn their fighting words into action.
Despite strongly attacking Blair, John Edmonds of the GMB said that his union would continue to fund Labour because 'we have few other places to go. We'll provide support for the Labour Party and we'll keep arguing with them.' But there is a deepening sense of crisis inside New Labour which will not be stopped easily.