The Labour Party is heading for a damaging divorce with the Rail, Maritime and Transport workers' union (RMT), which co-founded Labour more than 100 years ago.
The RMT's national council leadership has infuriated Labour by allowing five branches in Scotland to sever their links with the party and back the hard-left Scottish Socialist Party. The council is expected to allow the union's entire Scottish region to follow suit.
Some Labour officials believe that the RMT's decision to give financial and political support to a rival party is a deliberate attempt by Bob Crow, the union's left-wing general secretary, to provoke a formal split with Labour. The dispute will be watched closely by other unions. After a series of rows over policy, Tony Blair moved to mend fences this autumn by setting up a forum to discuss public service reforms. But unions remain suspicious of the Government's intentions and have refused repeated requests to sign a long term deal to fund Labour.
The dispute with the RMT is expected to come to a head after the union's council approves a breakaway by the Scottish regional council next month. That could prompt the Labour Party to issue a final ultimatum to the union. If it refused to back down, Labour would consider whether to expel it.
The union gave Labour £180,000 a year until last year, but has cut its annual donation to just £12,500. The RMT now hands money to the constituency parties of 14 left wing MPs including Diane Abbott and Jeremy Corbyn.
A Labour source said: "We are monitoring the situation. We do not want to see a split, but equally, organisations affiliated to the party have got to obey the rules. They can't have it both ways."
Yesterday the RMT denied that Mr Crow, who is not a Labour Party member, wanted to see a divorce between the union and the party. But RMT insiders admitted it would soon be "make your mind up time" for the 55,000-strong union.
RMT officials said the moves in Scotland were in line with the policy agreed by the union's conference in July, to remain affiliated to Labour nationally but to let branches disaffiliate if they wanted.
Mr Crow has said his members were turning away from Labour because the Government had failed to represent the interests of working people and RMT members.
But a Labour official countered: "Bob Crow wants to provoke a divorce and then blame the Labour Party." Labour officials and RMT moderates claim the breakaway is being driven by a small, unrepresentative group of hardline activists.
Colin Cook, an RMT branch secretary in Wolverton, is to complain to the certification officer, who regulates the trade unions, on the grounds that the union is breaking its own rules.
One RMT official claimed the decision by the five Scottish branches was taken by only 20 union delegates, who refused to ballot branch members about the split with Labour.
He added: "There is increasing concern in the union at the antics of Bob Crow but anyone with any stature is afraid to stick their heads above the parapet. People are frightened to speak out but I do not think that it is right that a few people in a smoke-filled room should be making a decision with such huge implications for members in Scotland without a ballot. Why are they afraid of a referendum? If the Scottish Socialists are so popular surely the executive would be confident of winning."Reuse content