This was my 20th TUC conference. I’ve been every year since 1998: to Brighton, Blackpool, Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow and even TUC HQ in London.
But I can’t recall a TUC conference where one issue dominated the week as much the Government’s public sector pay cap has here in Brighton this week.
From the very beginning, on Sunday, when Unison staged a clever stunt with an 8ft-high one-armed bandit, to the final moments, when Theresa May lampooned Len McCluskey for comparing himself to Mahatma Ghandi, it has been all about pay.
Even the contentious issue of Brexit, which a week or so ago looked as if it might prompt a row or even a split between the unions and Jeremy Corbyn over the single market, was overshadowed by pay.
The reason, partly, was because the Government’s dramatic and controversial U-turn on the cap at 1pm on Tuesday didn’t defuse the political row over the cap – as ministers had hoped it would – but inflamed it and made it worse.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen the usually mild-mannered and measured TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady so incensed as she was when she appeared on Sky News immediately after the Treasury announcement and condemned the Government’s move as an insult. She appeared to be shaking with rage.
In the Unison stunt on Sunday, every time the union’s general secretary Dave Prentis pulled the arm on the giant slot machine the display landed on “1%”, “you” and “lose”.
The message – reinforced eloquently by a nurse and an ambulance worker – was that the Government’s pay cap was rigged against public sector workers.
At the same time as the Unison photo-call, Len McCluskey and John McDonnell were launching a ferocious onslaught on the Government at a shop stewards’ rally in a packed room at Brighton’s Holiday Inn hotel.
In his speech, the Unite leader revealed that his union has built up a massive £36m strike fund and signalled that he was ready to break the law to scrap the cap.
He also hit out at “the traitors in our midst” who were failing to back the unions in their pay campaign. Who could he mean? Some Labour MPs, of course.
In his speech, the shadow chancellor pledged that if the unions voted to strike over the public sector cap the Labour Party wouldn’t just support them in Parliament but would be on the picket line with them too.
Somewhat surprisingly, Jeremy Corbyn adopted a less militant tone than his long-time friend and left-wing ally when he spoke to the conference on Tuesday and in an interview he gave during his visit.
The Labour leader accused the Government in his speech of an attempt at “divide and rule, to play one sector off against another”, a reference to the awards to police and prison officers but no-one else.
And in his interview, he refused to say whether he backed illegal strikes, saying the course of action on public sector pay was a matter for the unions.
But Len McCluskey hadn’t finished stirring things up. He’d left Brighton on Tuesday morning to attend some meetings in London, but when he returned in the afternoon he was on the warpath.
He gathered journalists together for a huddle just outside the conference hall and then dramatically raised the stakes in the unions’ battle with the Government over pay and vowed to defy the law on the 50% strike ballot threshold, claiming it was “artificial”.
“If that means we are outside the law, then so be it,” he said. “The reality is that the law is wrong and it has to be resisted.”
And then he came out with this priceless comparison: “I daresay if you’d have been interviewing Nelson Mandela or Mahatma Ghandi or the suffragettes you’d be telling them that they were breaking the law.”
He added: “When a law is wrong, not only is it important to stand up and say so, it’s our duty to resist.”
No other union leader in Brighton went as far during the week in threatening defiance of the law or used such colourful language. But then the Unite leader isn’t called “Red Len” for nothing.
At Prime Minister’s Questions, about an hour before the TUC conference ended, Theresa May was asked by the Tory MP Victoria Atkins about the refusal of the Corbyn ally and shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon to say in a radio interview whether he would back an illegal strike.
She said Unite also appeared to agree, noting: “Such illegal action would of course cause misery for millions of people across the country. Do you join me in condemning illegal action?”
The PM responded: “I was struck this week to see that Len McCluskey, or perhaps Mahatma as his friends call him, had said if they need to act outside the law, so be it.
“Well, I have to say I join you, on this side of the House we’re very clear – we condemn illegal strikes, we condemn action outside of the law.”
So at the end of this TUC conference, militant unions like Unite and Theresa May’s Tory government are on collision course over public sector pay.
The issue is likely to dominate the Labour conference back here in Brighton in two weeks’ time and arguments between Labour and the Conservatives in Parliament as well.
Some five million people are affected by this pay policy, from lowly-paid unskilled workers to middle class professionals like doctors and teachers.
The TUC found its voice on the issue this week. And no voice was louder than that of Len McCluskey.
Here’s to the next 20 years.