However, for the first time in living memory some of the so-called 'barons' of the union movement might decide to leave the decision to their members, albeit with a few strong hints.
Labour affiliates were in disarray over who should be the favoured successor, although Mr Brown was seen as a possible favourite.
Unions affiliated to the party will have a reduced input into the electoral process - down from 40 per cent of the votes to one-third - but they are unlikely to support Tony Blair, the parliamentary party's probable favourite.
Mr Blair is characterised in the union movement as the 'arch moderniser' who has consistently argued for the removal of unions from Labour's democratic mechanisms. Mr Brown is seen as a fellow right-winger, but less strident.
Second on the unions' list will be John Prescott, who most unions will see as a deputy rather than a leader. Mr Prescott's union credentials waned after he supported John Smith's successful campaign to dilute union input into the party.
While last time most unions cast their votes as a 'block', this time trade unionists will be asked to vote individually and the figures will be aggregated nationally. That means that union leaders will have less influence on the outcome and that the mass media will play a more significant role. Under a resolution passed at last October's conference only union members who formally declare support for the party will be able to use their vote.
Partly out of respect to the dead leader, union general secretaries kept their own counsel last night, but premature announcements after the last election about their favoured candidates led to considerable criticism. With the 'dream ticket' of Smith and Beckett they were seen to sew it up before anyone voted.Reuse content