Edmonds to step down as GMB leader a year early

John Edmonds, the man who became Tony Blair's most vociferous critic from the trade union movement, is to stand down as leader of the giant GMB union a year early.

John Edmonds, the man who became Tony Blair's most vociferous critic from the trade union movement, is to stand down as leader of the giant GMB union a year early.

Mr Edmonds, 58, was to retire in 2004 but his departure has been brought forward and he will stand down as general secretary of the 700,000-strong GMB in the new year to allow an election for his successor in March, the union said.

He won notoriety as the informal leader of union barons branded "wreckers" by ministers for attempting to block efforts to bring private firms into public services. His departure will be a relief to many in the Government but there will be concern at the prospect of yet another leadership contest in a large union and Labour party affiliate after Derek Simpson ousted Sir Ken Jackson as leader of the Amicus union earlier this year.

Bill Morris, the leader of the Transport and General Workers Union, is due to retire next year and a new breed of left-wing general secretaries has emerged in a string of unions, raising fears of a fresh wave of industrial militancy.

Two front-runners for leadership of the GMB emerged last night. The London regional secretary, Paul Kenny, a member of the TUC general council, and the northern regional secretary, Kevin Curran, both describe themselves as "centre-left" but are unlikely to shy away from criticising Mr Blair.

A GMB spokesman said Mr Edmonds' decision, to be confirmed today, brings his retirement in line with the departure of his deputy, Steve Pickering. Union rules say elections for both posts must coincide.

Mr Edmonds played a central role in the heavy defeat for Tony Blair over public private partnerships at last month's Labour Party conference, insisting that "we have put a marker down for ministers".

The GMB also cut its financial support for Labour by £500,000 a year and criticised political funding by major donors. Mr Edmonds has been a central voice in campaigning for early entry to the single currency within the union movement.

He oversaw the opening of a GMB office in Brussels, the first British union to do so, and has criticised Mr Blair for not backing Britain's entry into the single currency more vigorously.

His departure, in the run-up to the Government's assessment of the five economic tests next year, comes as the balance of opinion in the union movement shifts from the euro.

Mr Edmonds, the son of a shop steward, lists his interests as cricket and cabinet-making, has been leader of the GMB since 1986 and built it into Britain's third biggest union, securing re-election in 1991 and 1996. Educated at Christ's Hospital, near Horsham, Sussex, and Oriel College, Oxford, Mr Edmonds joined the GMB's forerunner, the GMWU, as a research assistant in 1965 after a short spell with a food company.

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