Derek Simpson: A left-wing 'Walter Mitty' prepares for centre stage after beating all the odds

The Monday Interview: Joint General Secretary, Amicus

Derek Simpson will take inordinate pleasure this week in attending the annual conference of his union, Amicus, Labour's largest affiliate.

Derek Simpson will take inordinate pleasure this week in attending the annual conference of his union, Amicus, Labour's largest affiliate.

Last year, Mr Simpson, who was then an obscure union official in Sheffield, was warned that he would not be welcome at the assembly because of his temerity in challenging Sir Ken Jackson for the leadership.

Casting aside the doubts of his friends and derision of his enemies, Mr Simpson, a former Communist, decided that the union needed him at the helm.

At the time, he was seen as the labour movement's Walter Mitty. Not only was he contesting the highest office in the organisation, he was running against the Prime Minister's favourite trade unionist.

The left-winger was also taking on an all-powerful right-wing faction that ran the union as though it were a one-party state - brooking no opposition from the few active radicals who ignored routine intimidation or avoided dismissal. Mr Simpson was also risking his job. Remarkably, candidates had to resign before standing.

Despite allegations that supporters of Sir Ken had tried to rig the nominating process, he triumphed, becoming general secretary of the Amalgamated Electrical and Engineering Union, the engineering section of Amicus, in December. In January, the AEEU is due to merge with the white-collar MSF (Manufacturing, Science, Finance) division of the organisation and Mr Simpson is scheduled to become overall leader after 2004.

Last year, Sir Ken's ruling cabal refused to allow Mr Simpson permission to take his holidays to coincide with the conference so that he could canvas delegates. He defied the ruling and spent a week leafleting delegates. Such was the power of the right-wing faction that some conference-goers looked away when he approached. Others refused to be seen in his company. "I had to show people there was opposition in the union and that we were not afraid to stand up and be counted," he said.

In Blackpool on Wednesday, Mr Simpson will have pride of place on the platform among a flotilla of officials anxious to do his bidding. "I feel that now I'm general secretary people are able to discuss issues that were previously obscured," he said. "Now we keep both eyes on the members, not one eye on Downing Street and the other eye on employers. Perhaps some people are agreeing with me in a sycophantic way, but others are entirely genuine. We are beginning to act like a trade union."

Mr Simpson has attracted the attention of right-wing tabloids - as did the firefighters' leader Andy Gilchrist during the recent industrial action. Yesterday, The Mail on Sunday said it was ironic that, as a trade unionist who attacked fat-cat company directors, Mr Simpson was moving from his small semi-detached house in Sheffield into a four-bedroom home in Hertfordshire. Mr Simpson points out, however, that Amicus owns the property. Under previous arrangements, the general secretary's home would be valued when hesmoved in and when he moved out and he would pocket the difference. The new leader has forsworn such a perk.

Mr Simpson used to earn about £33,000 as a district official but is now being paid £79,000. "Taking into account the tax I pay and the costs of living in London, I don't have a great deal more cash than I did before," he said. "Anyway I don't do the job for the money. Never have done."

He is often identified with the "awkward squad" of left-wing unionists including Tony Woodley, general secretary-elect of the T&G union, Bob Crow of the RMT rail union, Mick Rix of the train drivers' union Aslef and Billy Hayes of the Communication Workers Union.

"I'm not sure the 'awkward squad' description is correct," he said. "But I think people are now electing leaders who are prepared to represent their views. Perhaps we are awkward in the sense that we are prepared to criticise the Government when they don't respect the rights of working people."

The Amicus leader learned his politics in what he describes as "the socialist republic of South Yorkshire" when he became active in the Amalgamated Engineering Union. "I was surrounded by people in the Communist Party and committed socialists in the Labour Party. I was imbued with ideas of social justice and the need to improve society on behalf of working people." He became an Amalgamated Engineering Union shop steward in 1967 and later a works convener.

Tony Benn is one of his heroes. "He expresses what other people find are complicated points in simple language. I admire the way he ties the threads together."

He said he also admired what Peter Hain, the Leader of the House, said on Friday about increasing the burden of taxation on high earners. "When I heard what he said on the Today programme, I thought he was going to be slapped down almost immediately, and so he was. Blair was clearly livid. I think it was a very brave comment. It is seen as a heinous sin to discuss fundamental socialist principles. No doubt the next person to talk about nationalisation will be taken out for a public beheading."

Despite his deep misgivings about Tony Blair, Mr Simpson is a Labour loyalist and takes issue with left-wing colleagues who believe the best way to influence the party is by cutting donations. "I divide the question of funding from the question of policy. While we will reserve the right to take an alternative view to the Government," he said, "realistically, Labour is the only party that will do anything for the people I represent. I don't see any point in withdrawing funding ... We have to ensure that Labour beat the Conservatives in the next election. It is as simple as that."

But he does expect the union to take issue with the Government on several matters this week. While British ministers "hide" behind European law in declining to intervene to help manufacturing, other governments in the EU adopt strong policies to defend their industries, he believes.

In his keynote speech at the conference, Mr Simpson will say that the train manufacturing company Alsthom chose to close its plant in Birmingham while keeping other works open in France, Germany and Spain. "They have done that because the British government allows them to. It is cheaper, easier and more expedient to do it here. It would be far more difficult for the company to close its factories on the Continent because it would be forced to consider the social implications ... Employers in this country continually moan about red tape and bureaucracy. In fact they are the least regulated, the least taxed and the most profitable in Europe."

The union will demand that ministers go beyond their recommendations in a Green Paper and introduce a law to force employers to make minimum contributions to workers' pensions. Members will also call for a law to prevent companies rewarding failed directors with massive pay-offs.

So will the new man at Amicus be tempted to replace a right-wing authoritarian leadership with a left-wing one to force through his agenda? A 1950s forerunner of Amicus was led by Communists who also ruled with an iron rod and rigged elections.

Mr Simpson argues that under a constitution expected to be ratified tomorrow, it would be extremely difficult to impose his agenda even if he wanted to, which he does not. According to one insider, the rulebook will combine the discipline of the blue-collar engineering union with the "liberal anarchy" of the "middle-class" MSF.

THE CV

Born: 23 December, 1944

Educated: Sheffield Central Technical School

1960: Engineering apprenticeship at Firth Brown Tools. Joined the Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU)

1966: Moved to engineering company Balfour Darwin. Became a member of the junior workers' committee

1967: Shop steward at Balfour Darwin and later convener

1981: Started work as full-time official for the AEU

1987: Awarded BA degree by Open University

1992: Left Communist Party

1994: Joined Labour Party

1999: Appointed honorary fellow of Sheffield Hallam University

2002: Elected general secretary of Amicus-AEEU, the engineering section of the new "super-union" Amicus, as well as joint leader of the entire organisation

Due to become sole general secretary of Amicus after 2004

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