Clause IV battle catches Morris on left and right

Barrie Clement on the difficulties of a key figure in Labour's internal struggle
Click to follow
Bill Morris, leader of the Labour Party's largest affiliate and Tony Blair's highest-profile tormentor over Clause IV, is becoming increasingly isolated within his own union.

After nearly three years as general secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union, he is consistently opposed by the remnants of the right-wing caucus in the union which fought against his election, and he is now increasingly alienated by his left-wing backers.

According to his more cynical detractors, the recent Morris speech in which he declared his backing for a strong commitment to public ownership was an attempt to rehabilitate himself with the Left. There could well be more of the same from Mr Morris in the run-up to the special Labour conference on Clause IV on 29 April.

He is likely to need the support of the union's dominant left-wing machine if he is to secure re-election in a poll due next year. Prospective leaders of the T&G have always required the backing of "fixers", of either right or left, who organise the electoral campaign and canvass on the candidate's behalf.

Others believe that his seemingly fundamentalist statement in support of Clause IV was more cock-up than conspiracy. Perhaps its portrayal was simply the product of a journalist looking for a "line".

It is understood that Mr Morris has personally assured the Labour leader on several occasions in recent months of his desire to refrain from rocking the boat. The support of the T&G, which will command about 12 per cent of the votes at the conference, would do wonders for the pro-Blair voting arithmetic.

Having received the private assurances from Mr Morris, the Labour leader was taken aback when the union man issued what seemed to be an extremely unhelpful declaration.

The cock-up theorists believe that even Mr Morris might have also been genuinely surprised by the reaction to his remarks. Closer examination of the full text of the Morris statement shows that it could be interpreted as a magisterial peroration, rather than a fundamentalist rant.

The T&G leader himself insists that the speech simply set out his union's present position. The issue is under review through a branch consultation process.

There is little doubt, however, that Mr Morris will need to mend his fences with his former supporters if he is to be assured of re-election.

He started his period of office by tackling the union's financial problems and won considerable respect as a consequence. Since then, though, he has angered much of his 200-strong officer corps through failing allegedly to give them a strong lead, demoralised many of the support staff - who went on strike last year - and disappointed the left-wing caucus by flirting with political "fads" such as Clintonism.

In the union itself, therefore, his support is at a low ebb. Among the members it may be a different story as, certainly for black workers, he has become something of an icon.

Can the left abandon the 57-year-old man who is probably the most prominent black leader in Britain today? If they do, who could they back? These questions are exercising the minds of the left, but they are not easily answered.