David Cameron holds historic meeting with union leaders

First meeting of its kind with a Tory-led government for a quarter of a century

Union leaders told David Cameron that the government's spending cuts spelt a "bleak" future for the country when they met the prime minister at Downing Street today.

The trade union chiefs issued the hard-hitting message after requesting an audience with Cameron in what is believed to be the first meeting of its kind with a Tory-led government for a quarter of a century.

Today's session – described by sources as "good-natured" – took place over tea and mince pies with both sides seeking to quell mounting tensions over the government's austerity drive.

A Downing Street spokesman said the event hosted by Cameron today was "part of the dialogue we want to have with the trade unions".

Union leaders used uncompromising language, warning Cameron that the spending cuts due to kick in next April would be both "socially divisive" and "economically dangerous" After the meeting, Brendan Barber, the TUC general secretary, who has already held talks with Cameron since the general election, said: "The UK is currently in the grips of a bleak midwinter. Today we warned the prime minister that next year promises to be even bleaker for millions of families and their communities as the spending cuts bite hard and hit jobs and services.

"We made clear to the prime minister our strong view that the spending cuts would both be socially divisive and economically dangerous. We urged him to do more to raise money from the banks as a sector that had done the most to take us into the current crisis and which had received enormous help from government."

Barber added that there were also "useful discussions" on green growth and jobs, manufacturing and equality, and welcomed Cameron's intention to "continue this dialogue" with unions on issues such as public sector pensions.

Not all were convinced ongoing talks will prove useful, however, with one union source pointing out that the prime minister stressed that the vexed decision to switch indexation for pensions from RPI to the usually lower CPI was not up for negotiation.

One of several union leaders unable to attend because of poor weather conditions was Len McCluskey, the recently elected general secretary designate of Unite, who ratcheted up the pressure regarding mass industrial action in an article in today's Guardian.

McCluskey said that union leaders plan to stage a special meeting in January to discuss a "broad strike movement" to stop what he describes as the coalition's "explicitly ideological" programme of cuts.

The leftwinger said that unions had to prepare for battle. "It is our responsibility not just to our members but to the wider society that we defend our welfare state and our industrial future against this unprecedented assault," he wrote. He praised Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, for drawing a line under the party's Blairite past, but called for a clearer alternative to the coalition's "austerity frenzy".

Downing Street said in response to McCluskey's call that the prime minister "obviously" doesn't want to see co-ordinated strike action, but also insisted there were "no plans" to raise the threshold on union ballots to make it harder for unions to strike, as some predict.

The spokesman said: "We actually want to engage in a constructive dialogue with the unions and today's meeting is part of that. We obviously have a different view and it is important that we make our case to them."

Miliband's office was more robust as it distanced itself from McCluskey's "overblown rhetoric" on the spectre of mass action.

A spokesperson for the Labour leader said: "Ed warned about using overblown rhetoric about strikes in his conference speech and this is a case in point. The language and tone of Len McCluskey's comments are wrong and unhelpful and Ed Miliband will be making that clear when he meets him in the near future."

Though the TUC general secretary, Brendan Barber, has met Cameron since the Conservatives took office with the Liberal Democrats in May, union sources say the official meeting with a large delegation of senior union figures is the first of its kind by a Tory prime minister and the leaders of the union movement in 25 years.

The last official meeting was at the end of the miners' strike in 1985 when the then-TUC general secretary Norman Willis met Margaret Thatcher.

In his seven years in Downing Street, John Major never officially met the TUC, although he did meet individual union leaders privately.

Talks with unions to date have only taken place with lower ranking ministers since the coalition was formed in May.

A previous attempt at dialogue with senior government figures fell foul earlier this year when some unions remonstrated over the TUC's decision to invite Cameron to address its annual conference in September. Cameron declined the offer, citing expected paternity leave for the birth of his fourth child.

Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat business secretary, accepted his invitation to address the conference in Manchester, only to have this subsequently rescinded amid union anger at the emergency June budget and speculation about deep cuts ahead of the comprehensive spending review the following month.


Hélène Mulholland and Matthew Taylor

The GuardianTramp

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