Union city blues

One of my secret pleasures in the mid-seventies was settling down in the front room to watch live coverage of the TUC conference.

There was always plenty of entertaining wheat to be had among the procedural chaff if you were prepared to sit it out for long enough, and it was always a treat to see human nature at its most unedifying.

In those days, of course, the conference actually meant something.

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The unions not only had vast power - which they then proceeded to abuse and misuse in a variety of inventive ways - they also had their foot on the Labour Party's windpipe.

A position of power without responsibility was well worth fighting for, especially as it went hand in hand with big cars, fancy suits and regular invitations to Number Ten for tea and a chat.

Consequently, the TUC conference was used as an ugly and unsubtle kind of audition. Only the fittest and craftiest emerged from the melee relatively unscathed, and they included men like Jack Jones, Hugh Scanlon and Frank Cousins.

But as the unions have splintered over the years, and then coalesced into larger organisations with new fancy names, their leaders have become increasingly grey and anonymous.

People like Derek Simpson (who always reminds me of Liberace's little brother) and Tony Woodley (a would-be Wallasey hard-man) do their best, but the glory days are long gone.

However, there was one familiar sight in Liverpool this week '“ the response given to the prime minister's address, which can be categorised as somewhat less than rapturous.

Gordon Brown seemed to know what was coming. He was wary, nervous even, and did that weird crab-like thing with his left hand, in which it seems to take off across the podium with a life of its own.

Several perorations fell flat and he eventually gave up bothering with them altogether. It was not entirely clear whether the few comrades who got to their feet at the end were simply stretching their legs or taking part in a crouching ovation.

He pushed one or two reliable old buttons, like 'build more council houses,' protect the NHS' and 'an annual increase in the minimum wage,' but he and they knew it's all over bar the voting.

Forgive the sigh, but it was bound to happen sooner rather than later.

The first sign of disaffection with Barack Obama, the first hint that he may not be the most perfect president in the history of the USA '“ and his detractors are immediately condemned as 'racists.'

Jimmy Carter (who's old enough to know better) made the claim after a fiery Republican called Joe Wilson shouted 'you lie' at Obama during his speech to Congress about health care.

It may have been rude, even loutish, but it takes a special sort of paranoia to detect a hint of racism in the remark.

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