LETTERS

Andrew Cole's imaginative perspective on the role of health trade unions ('Divided they fall', pages 24-27, 1 February) offered an interesting glimpse of the subject. The Labour government has undoubtedly had a major impact on the unions' role in this highly charged political arena.

But Brian Edwards has seriously underestimated the unions' influence on health policy. As a former senior officer with both COHSE and Unison, I saw the unions' implicit involvement in the evolution of health policy in the Labour Party.

Few trade union representatives can be unhappy with the emerging thrust of health policy.

You could be forgiven for thinking the emphasis on familyfriendly and partnership culture in the new NHS human resources agenda was written by someone sympathetic to the trade unions' cause.

The increasing centralisation of Unison and the Royal College of Nursing was a child of the dark ages of Tory rule. The culture of fear, the marginalisation of unions and the domination of machomanagement were the main culprits in the falling numbers of union activists. Trade unions became more centralised because of the vacuum created at the sharp end of union activity. Even now, with the developing 'partnership ethos', many unions are struggling to recruit activists and members willing to participate in union affairs. A real irony, given that one of Thatcherism's consequences was to stifle participatory democracy.

It is interesting to witness a real buzz in the NHS human resources community about the changing culture, the inclusion of unions in policy development and debate and a much more pro-active employment relations agenda - almost as if HR practitioners have had the chains lifted from their necks.

Some months after the 1997 general election, when still a Unison officer, I was asked by a senior HR manager what it felt like to have a Labour government. I said it was like that feeling when you stop banging your head against a brick wall: you still have a headache. . . but you know it will get better soon.

Robert Quick Director Centre for employment relations and partnerships Mackworth College Derby