Scargill's men taste victory as unions turn to the left

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BRITAIN'S union leaders are under growing threat from the left as activists vent their anger over Tony Blair's New Labour Government.

While employees' representatives attempt to strike deals with ministers behind the scenes, union members are increasingly turning to more hardline activists who promise victory through confrontation rather than compromise.

The latest sign of disaffection came last week when a senior member of Arthur Scargill's Socialist Labour Party won an unexpected victory in the election for the general secretary's job at the industrially powerful union for train drivers, Aslef. Lew Adams' defeat by Dave Rix, who stood for the SLP in the general election, was symptomatic of growing frustration among more active Aslef members about the union leadership's inability to influence the Blair administration.

Apart from discontent over recent pay deals, drivers were also expressing anger over their officials' failure to reverse the process of privatisation. Similar grievances have emerged in RMT, the rail industry's largest union, where Bob Crow, an SLP member, holds the deputy general secretaryship and four out of the 11-strong rail executive are also party members. Mr Crow may run in an election to replace the present leader Jimmy Knapp, a pragmatic left-winger.

The Government's perceived conservatism is also causing tensions in some of Britain's other big unions including Unison and the Communication Workers' Union.

Concern among activists re-emerged on Thursday when the Cabinet failed to discuss the White Paper on "fairness at work" which will contain proposals for a law on union recognition. Union suspicions of Mr Blair's motives will be raised even more if ministers neglect to consider the proposals this Thursday with a view to publishing the document before the end of the month.

Traditional trade unionists are becoming increasingly exasperated with Downing Street's apparent reluctance to get on and publish the document and with the Prime Minister's keenness to place ever-increasing obstacles in the way of recognition.

To add to the insistence that 40 per cent of the whole workforce - not just a majority of those voting in a ballot - should endorse collective bargaining, the Independent on Sunday also understands that No 10 is now insisting on a test of union membership before a recognition ballot can be triggered.

Meanwhile at public service union Unison, Rodney Bickerstaffe, the general secretary, faces constant sniping from the left largely for his inability to persuade the Government to increase public expenditure and his failure to end the system whereby private capital is used to fund public projects such as hospitals.

Mr Bickerstaffe and his executive have recently taken action to undermine the increasing power base within the union of the "Campaign for a Fighting and Democratic Unison" which is controlled by the Socialist Party, the most recent incarnation of the old Trotskyist Militant Tendency.

Apart from last week's poll at Aslef, the 270,000-strong Communication Workers' Union, with most of its membership at BT and the Post Office, has also shifted to the left. While Bill Hayes, the hard left candidate, was beaten into second place, he was defeated by Derek Hodgson, who is very much a devotee of "Old Labour". Tony Young, present joint general secretary and the candidate favoured by Downing Street, came third.

Over the last few years the right-left split in the union movement has been far less important. Ideological disagreements have been set aside in an attempt to influence Labour Party policy. Before the general election union leaders of most political persuasions collectively kept their heads down at the behest of the party leadership. Since then their reticence has continued for fear of provoking a backlash from the Prime Minister ahead of the all-important white paper on employee rights.

The "silence of the union barons" has been interpreted by many activists however as acquiescence in the New Labour programme, a perception which has led to a resurgence of the left.