Trouble for PM as union crown falls to left-winger

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The Independent Online

Tony Blair's rift with the unions looked set to deepen last night after a left-winger was elected leader of the Transport and General Workers' Union, one of the party's largest financial donors.

In a four-way contest, Tony Woodley received 43 per cent of the vote to become the union's general secretary elect, beating Jack Dromey, husband of the Solicitor General Harriet Harman and Downing Street's favoured candidate, into second place.

Mr Dromey polled 29 per cent of the vote while the two other candidates, Barry Camfield and Jimmy Elsby, received 18 and 9 per cent respectively. The turnout was only 21 per cent of the union's 800,000 members polled.

Mr Woodley, a 54-year-old Merseysider, will succeed Bill Morris, a close ally of the Chancellor Gordon Brown, and become a far more vociferous critic of the Government. Mr Woodley, currently deputy general secretary, will be a prominent member of the increasingly influential "awkward squad'' in the union movement, who are determined to make the life of the Prime Minister more difficult.

Mr Woodley said his election sent a message to the Government that it must start listening to the Labour grass roots. "I believe working people think this Government is wedded too closely to big business. My victory is an early warning for the Government to start listening to the priorities of Labour voting men and women - such as jobs, decent pay, good working conditions and pensions.''

The general secretary elect said there were some issues that could not be improved solely by bargaining with employers, and said it was up to union leaders such as himself to try to influence the Government on issues such as the minimum wage, which has been set at a "poverty level''.

He added: "I have made it perfectly clear that I intend to give my members' message to the heart of Government.'' Mr Woodley will take over as the £74,000 a year general secretary in October.

One of Mr Woodley's first acts will be to call a "council of war'' among like-minded union leaders in an attempt to draw up a campaign of action against New Labour policies.

In common with other left-wing trade unionists, Mr Woodley will be calling for a fundamental review of the relationship between Labour and the unions, which established the party and still make up Labour's most important single source of income.

As a consequence of Mr Woodley's election, the Government will experience far more difficulty at party conferences pushing through policies on the involvement of private companies in delivering public services and in minimising changes to existing employment law.

Mr Woodley came to prominence with the union over his leading role in protecting jobs at the Rover car plant in Longbridge.

Mr Dromey yesterday congratulated the general secretary elect and said he was ready to continue working for the union under the new leader. Mr Dromey, a national official, will now have to decide whether to stand as deputy general secretary in the wake of his rival's elevation.