Election begins for leadership of Unison

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The Independent Online

Labour Editor

One of Tony Blair's main tormentors over Clause IV is expected to be the next leader of Britain's biggest union and potentially the Labour Party's largest affiliate.

As nominations opened yesterday, Rodney Bickerstaffe, a veteran of the 1979 "Winter of Discontent", emerged as the clear favourite to take over as general secretary of the public service union Unison.

While only part of Unison is now affiliated to Labour, next January the 700,000 members who do not donate money to the party will be asked to do so. Insiders believe that with the Transport and General Workers' Union reducing its affiliation to Labour, Unison could emerge as the new dominant force.

Although the normally discreet Mr Bickerstaffe distanced himself from the Labour leadership over party reform, his candidature will be seen as far more acceptable than two of his opponents from the far left.

Mr Bickerstaffe, currently associate general secretary of Unison, is being challenged by Roger Bannister, who is backed by Militant Labour, and Yunnus Baksh, endorsed by the Socialist Workers' Party. The post could prove to be highly sensitive if Labour wins the next election. Unison could be the first union to pose an industrial challenge, its members having suffered a continual erosion of pay under the Tories.