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In a daring daylight raid at the recent Scottish Labour conference, a small band of desperate men tried to wreck es...
In a daring daylight raid at the recent Scottish Labour conference, a small band of desperate men tried to wreck established party policy on private public partnerships.

Claiming widespread support among ordinary union members, the gang hijacked the first day's local government debate to explode Labour's plans for public/private partnerships to become an integral part of the election manifesto.

Exploiting the oxygen of publicity, trade union spin-doctors announced their victory was assured. After all, they controlled 49% of conference votes and, with a little help from their many friends, Labour's pragmatic support for PPPs would be reduced to ashes.

The plan failed as conference voted by 58%-42% to support the party leadership.

The significance of the vote is that it turns decades of Labour tradition on its head. Historically, right-wing union barons rescued Labour leaders from unrepresentative left-wing constituency delegates, but now these roles are reversed. The unions are the ones out of step with ordinary members, because 58%-42% shows that virtually every other delegate voted against the big public sector unions.

Union policy over PPP is now regarded as a mishmash of dogma and vested interest. Scare stories have replaced serious debate about fair employment and protecting legitimate rights at work. Instead of strengthening TUPE rights and reforming pensions law, the unions are effectively hardening their position while calling for government to make further concessions.

Trade unions are demanding that workers should be protected for the lifetime of PPP contracts, for up to 30 years. But this is a dishonest position because it would require the private sector to behave in a way the public sector abandoned years ago. Protection periods in the NHS last up to 12 months and in local government for a maximum of three years.

So, the call for TUPE-based protections to apply for the lifetime of PPP contracts is plainly ridiculous - employment contracts with the private sector would be fixed rigidly for a generation, while the public sector would be free to adapt to changing circumstances.

Imagine contracts and staffing levels being set in concrete in the 1970s, but expecting them to deliver modern, responsive services for another 30 years.

Scotland's unions now oppose PPP in principle even though it is an integral part of government economic policy. The bottom line is that private finance has to play a major role; government cannot do it all without wrecking the Iron Chancellor's reputation for sound management and fiscal prudence.

In the end, angry union bosses are left arguing for a purist economic programme similar to Labour's 1983 election manifesto - described by Denis Healey as the longest suicide note in history.

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