Marxist's move to modernity: John Torode profiles the man charged with bringing the Labour secretariat up to date

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Indy Politics
TOM SAWYER, a solid citizen of 51, with hands-on administrative experience in the unions, will take charge of the party's notoriously inefficient head office.

Sawyer, twice-married and with three sons, is a soft-spoken, studious-looking man with a neat beard and smart tweed sports coats. He collects first editions and enjoys classical music.

He is a former Marxist whose experiences encapsulate those of a generation of working-class activists.

His strength is that he is one of the few union bosses seriously interested in the theory and practice of the management and marketing of organisations.

But he is also an intensely political animal, recognising the links between politics and administration.

Sawyer is one of three deputy general secretaries of the new super-union, Unison, which represents 1.4 million local government and health service workers. He was previously number two at the National Union of Public Employees - one of the three unions which came together as Unison. There he had been responsible for restructuring and democratising a union which had grown rapidly, but untidily, since the 1960s.

Born in 1943 in Darlington, he left school at 15 to become an apprentice in Stephenson's locomotive works. Stephenson's closed when Sawyer was 20 and he moved to the booming Midlands motor industry.

By the end of the 1960s, employment growth was in public service, not motor manufacture. Nupe - an aggressive, left-wing union - mushroomed, recruiting among the expanding army of blue-collar workers in health and local government. In 1971, it took on Sawyer, then aged 27, as an organiser. Six years later he was made northern regional secretary. Within a year, he was a key organiser of the strikes and disruption of the Winter of Discontent (1978-79).

In 1981, Sawyer was appointed deputy general secretary, working under his friend Rodney Bickerstaffe. Their first task was to consider how to cast the union's block vote in Labour's deputy leadership election of 1981 in which Tony Benn was challenging Denis Healey.

The new leadership was so confident that its hard-left position reflected the views of the membership that a ballot was held. The rank and file overwhelmingly supported Healey. Sawyer and Bickerstaffe were shocked to discover how completely they and their fellow activists had miscalculated the mood of their members, and Nupe became preoccupied with reorganising its own structures to make them both democratic and efficient. It fell to Sawyer to commission consultants and to implement changes.

Sawyer took his union's seat on Labour's national executive and, as chairman of the influential home policy sub-committee, he came to know Blair, then party employment spokesman. They discovered that, privately, they agreed that many Conservative changes in union law were irreversible and that some, like secret ballots, were morally correct and potentially beneficial.

Moreover, they shared an interest in creating a democratic mass movement, and a belief that the party machine could and should be far more efficient.