One morning in early September, Digby rushed into a radio studio to shake
his dewlaps at the trade unions. He said: "Barriers to progress…
yesterday’s battles… grrr… wintrydiscontentdeadunburiedclosedshop… grrr…
The annual extravaganza of clichés otherwise known as conference season is
like the Olympics – it needs someone to light the torch and begin the
festivities, and it was important to Digby’s self-esteem to be that someone.
In the age of media and brands, being seen to slot home the right message at
the right time into the nation’s half-awake sensoria was far more important
than the substance of what you say.
During the hot, lazy summer, he had often looked out from his Centrepoint
eyrie and reflected that British business was like a fierce and powerful
mastiff, fangs bared, taut sinews rippling, howling at the scent of carrion,
but boxed in everywhere by meddling bureaucrats and nannying unions determined
to cage and sedate this awesome creature. Kennelman Digby must set the beast
free. He left the studio with high hopes – marred only by the faint
recollection that he may have promised Brendan he could start everything off
this year. Ah well, too bad. "Soon, my beauty," he whispered to
Fortunately, his carefully confected rage had not fallen on fallow ground.
Among the half-awake masses were some journalists, who knew there are only six
possible stories in conference season: (1) brothers berate Blair, (2) Blair
stands up to brothers, (3) bosses lay into brothers, (4) brothers hit out at
bosses, (5) bosses berate Blair, (6) change not happening quickly enough claim
With that tenacity, ingenuity, and quick thinking under pressure, for which
British journalism is so justly famous, they swiftly realised they were onto
something big. This was a bit of story 3 crossed with a little 6, a 3+6 in the
jargon – something which hadn’t been seen for a full 12 months. Stopping only
to cut and paste what they had written last year, they set to work.
"Damn," cursed Brendan, with a vehemence unusual among votaries of
partnership. Round the table in a cubist eyesore in Fitzrovia sat the 50 odd
sets of jowls of the General Council, some scowling the scowl of awkwardness,
others looking more like victims of domestic abuse, but all watching the new
man for a lead.
That morning, Brendan’s phone had not stopped ringing. The journalists had
told him Digby had just come up with a 3+6 story and he was going to have to
deliver a 4, or maybe a 1+4, in time for the evening news – if things were
going to really get going ahead of his Brighton conference.
"I was sure Digby promised I could start it off this year,"
reflected Brendan mildly.
Immediately, the good brethren sensed the crisis and began pitching in. How
about a mass picket of Centrepoint, they offered. A national "It’s Our
Turn, Digby" Campaign. They could possibly appeal to the European
Commission to begin work on a new Autumn Conference Fair Play directive.
Brendan gently patted the air to silence them. "Please, colleagues, I
must think," he said, in the manner of a yogi poised for prayer.
That afternoon, he pondered his dilemmas. Brighton – his first as GS – was
looming, all minibars, backslapping and oily vol-au-vents. What he needed in
his keynote speech was a twin strategy that would really bring home that it was
his turn to start and how unfair Digby was being, but that would also play well
with the crack troops of organised labour. What should he do?
He could tack to the left, invoke the spirit of Tolpuddle, of Annie Besant,
of Clem, Nye and the boys, quote a line from The Red Flag – something about
"cringing before the rich man’s frown" always went down well with
trots and tankies, though less so among anyone with power. Or maybe play to the
centre, calling up the Webbs, throw in a Shavian reference, a bit of Beveridge,
a line or two of Things Can Only Get Better, and go on about how the Labour
movement was like a family, with tiffs and quarrels and rows over taking too
long in the bathroom and who could use the phone, but in which everyone loved
each other really and needed to listen to what each other was saying with
respect. "Fairness" was a good word, a modern word, not too much
baggage. Whenever unions laid claim to the great British sense of fair play, it
always got Digby very cross and that – along with "lots and lots of
rights" – was among the top priorities of conference season.
Alternatively, an idea flitted across his mind, he could break the mould and
say something that really engaged with the nature of working life. It was
occasionally muttered in some quarters that conference season was becoming an
increasingly daft, choreographed pillow-fight involving gormless institutions,
the Government and the media, which neither has any bearing on the mass
experience of work, nor gives the impression of any serious thought taking
"Nah," he reflected, "if it ain’t broke, why fix it?" He
swiftly phoned his press flunkies and said with new assurance: "Tell them
it’s story 4+6."
That evening, Brendan rushed into a radio studio and said: "Grr…
grr… grr… actionnotwords… somesuccessminimumwageunionrecognition, but