RMT union may fall under control of hard-left candidate

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The battle for the leadership of the RMT union began in earnest this week. Ballot papers are being sent out to find the successor to Jimmy Knapp, whose death from cancer in August left a vacuum at the top of the organisation which has ordered the industrial action at South West Trains.

One of the leading candidates to succeed Mr Knapp as general secretary of the union, is Bob Crow, the RMT's hard-left assistant general secretary, who has said he will take on the Government in pursuit of a better deal for his members. The rail industry is one of the few remaining sectors where ministers take such threats seriously.

The industrial leverage of unions elsewhere in the economy has greatly diminished. Arthur Scargill's National Union of Mineworkers is now a tiny, virtually impotent rump. The steel and motor industry unions are far keener to retain plants in Britain, than bring the country to its knees.

Yet the transport sector in general – and rail in particular – is still highly susceptible to industrial militancy. The general secretary of Aslef, the train drivers' union – potentially even more powerful than the RMT – is Mick Rix, a former member of the hard-left Socialist Labour Party led by Mr Scargill.

So far Mr Rix, now a member of the Labour Party, has had no need to resort to industrial action. He has secured substantial pay increases for the Aslef membership by playing one train operating company off against another at a time of driver shortages.

But the prospect of Mr Rix and Mr Crow in charge of the two blue-collar rail unions sends shivers up the spines of ministers, especially at a time when the network is undergoing yet another crisis provoked by Railtrack's bankruptcy.

The problem for management is the service they produce is instantly perishable – a train service cancelled cannot be retrieved. Union membership is also high among rail staff.

The RMT is the largest single employees' group on the rail network. It is a traditionalist organisation with the ability to cause mayhem to commuters in highly marginal constituencies in southern England. The union is also one of the Labour Party's biggest financial donors.

Ministers will be covertly backing Mr Crow's principal rival in the RMT election, Phil Bialyk, the national official responsible for South West Trains (SWT). A convinced devotee of Old Labour policies – and the renationalisation of the network – Mr Bialyk has little time for New Labour. Yet he is the nearest thing to a moderate among the candidates. He represents himself as the true heir to Mr Knapp, who was a pragmatic rather than ideological left-winger.

Cynics believe Mr Bialyk has been keen to foment the present unrest at SWT in order to raise his profile in the elections. But his supporters point out the dispute is now the responsibility of the RMT executive over which Mr Crow has considerable influence.

The third candidate is Raymond Spry-Shute who also claims to be a natural successor to Mr Knapp, but who has been identified with the hard left in the past.