Jackson gives Labour a lesson in spin

THE ALL-POWERFUL spin doctors of New Labour have encountered serious opposition from an unlikely source. Not from the putative manipulators of the media at the Conservative Party - they are minor irritants - but from a group of smart young men based in the London suburb of Bromley.

They are employed by Ken Jackson, general secretary of the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union, an organisation which is increasingly presenting itself as a substantial political influence on the Government.

One sign that ministers are sensitive to the pronouncements of Mr Jackson came last week. The union leader let it be known that he was miffed by what he sees as a middle-class takeover of the Labour Party and was to set aside pounds 1m of union money to encourage his members to entertain parliamentary ambitions.

Within 24 hours, the high priests of spin in the Government were saying that, despite tough new controls on the selection of prospective MPs, unions could still choose their own people, provided they stuck to the rules and their selection was approved by the national executive. A small victory - but an indication of the growing nuisance value of King Ken and his courtiers.

While most prominent unions fundamentally disagree with New Labour philosophy, Mr Jackson and his union do not. They would contend that its distaste for unions is misconceived, but they are strong proponents of much of its economic and social policy.

Given that unions still contribute at least half of Labour Party funds, ministers must try to keep Mr Jackson and his lieutenants on side. If New Labour can't convince the boys from Bromley, they will have little chance with John Edmonds, the prickly general secretary of the GMB union.

Critical to the AEEU's influence is the socio-economic profile of its membership. Many members would be regarded as upper-working class or lower- middle - two of Labour's target voter groups. If policies meet the approval of the union's leadership, they should play well with residents on Acacia Avenue.

A man without a university education but bags of resourcefulness, Mr Jackson was aware that the robust tactics required in union politics would not be appropriate for handling the more sensitive souls in government and the media. One of his predecessors, Eric Hammond, was cast into the outer darkness because of his dealings with Rupert Murdoch over the Wapping print dispute.

Increasingly aware of the potential for exercising influence, Mr Jackson has gathered to him some smart young operators. Mark Tami is the union's head of research and communications, and advises on overall strategy. Tom Watson, former deputy co-ordinator of Labour's election campaign, works behind the scenes as a political fixer and David-John Collins has given the AEEU a higher profile in the press.

A key sign of the engineering union's emergence as a political force came during negotiations over the recent Fairness at Work White Paper.

Together with John Monks, general secretary of the TUC, Mr Jackson effectively negotiated a compromise with the Government over union recognition, while other union leaders took a tougher line. Under the deal, 40 per cent of the relevant workforce would have to back recognition before it was granted, not just a simple majority of those voting.

That compromise released the negotiating log-jam and ministers were able to brush aside the protests of other union leaders and publish the much- delayed White Paper.

The "spinners" of the AEEU argue that they "did the business" for the movement, while their detractors contend that they "caved in". It's all a question of spin, after all.

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