Union chiefs urge pact to avoid a leadership contest: Barons would back 'balanced' Labour ticket

The country's largest unions are privately urging front-runners for the Labour Party leadership to strike a deal to avoid a contest.

In a strategy reminiscent of the old Conservative Party, the so- called 'barons' of the union movement are prepared to bury their differences with the main candidates and back whoever emerges.

Many trade unionists will find it difficult to endorse Tony Blair as leader, but would fall into line if the 'ticket' was balanced with someone like John Prescott, who is regarded as more 'union-friendly'.

The unusual circumspection of union leaders follows the criticism they sustained two years ago when they were seen to 'anoint' John Smith and his deputy, Margaret Beckett, before any consultation process began. This time they are not keen to put their heads above the parapet in case they back the wrong horses and a deal is subsequently agreed.

Bill Jordan, president of the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union, said: 'It would please us no end if a natural leader emerged. If the politicians within the Labour Party believed they had a consensus on their next leader I'm fairly certain that would be welcome throughout the trade union movement.'

The barons are 'split all over the place' over the choice of leader, according to another prominent union official. 'They hope the principal candidates will sort it out between themselves. Their hearts are with John Prescott, but their heads are with Tony Blair or Gordon Brown.'

If there were to be a contest, union leaders stand a much greater chance of being ignored by their members. Under the new electoral college - in which the union input is reduced from 40 per cent to 33 per cent - all union members who pay the political levy are guaranteed an individual postal vote. In the previous system, which was more susceptible to the blandishments of union general secretaries, many unions engaged in a consultation process whereby votes were held at branch meetings. Some senior activists argue that unions might refrain from making a recommendation in the event of a contest, but many union leaders will be unable to resist the temptation.

The campaign to start the election early received a boost yesterday when Alan Jinkinson, general secretary of Unison, the public services union, said his organisation could ballot its levy payers by July. However, it is thought that some affiliates, such as the construction union Ucatt, would have considerable administrative difficulty in meeting such a deadline.

Meanwhile, a row over who is allowed to influence Labour policy within Unison erupted at its first annual conference in Bournemouth yesterday. Left-wingers believe the annual conference should dictate policy, but the leadership argues that only those who pay into the political fund affiliated to Labour should be allowed to participate.

Mr Jinkinson said that the Unison executive would not be recommending a favoured candidate for the party leadership.

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