On the eve of the Labour Party conference in Blackpool, leaders of middle- class trade unionists have reacted angrily to suggestions that they are not really "working people" and that what Parliament needs is a much larger quota of representatives with dirt under their finger nails.
The first shots were fired by the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union which set up a pounds 1m fund to get more of its craft workers into the Commons at the expense of the New Labour candidates.
Irritated by the high-profile initiative from the working-class elite at the AEEU, the Transport and General Workers' Union embarked on a campaign to win prominent positions in public life for its unskilled manual workers.
It has all proved too much for Roger Lyons, general secretary of the Manufacturing, Science and Finance Union, (MSF), who yesterday decided to fight back. "The future of employment is increasingly professional and skilled and that is why MSF as the union for skilled and professional people is ideally placed to represent that future, both in the workplace and in Parliament," he said.
Dr Phyllis Starkey, Labour MP for Milton Keynes South West, a member of MSF and a biochemist, went further: "The AEEU's dichotomy between the working class and people who don't work is far too simple."
And she suspects that when the AEEU is talking about "working people" it means "working men" - only 6.5 per cent of engineering union mem-bers are women, compared with more than 30 per cent at MSF.
Some 80 MPs are members of MSF - by far the biggest union presence on the green benches - and all of them are professionally qualified. Mr Lyons, who wants more MSF members to put themselves forward as MPs, argues that the Parliamentary Labour Party not only reflects the world of work, but an increasingly middle-class union movement. The bulk of the 30,000 new members MSF claims to have recruited this year are said to be graduate engineers in electronics, scientists, health care professionals and call centre staff.
The union believes that the unskilled are being priced out of the market by cheap foreign competition so that the typical trade unionist is no longer a working-class man.
The Government's Labour Force Survey is adduced as evidence. It shows that the most highly unionised jobs are in professional and "associate professional" fields. The proportion of union membership varies between 73 per cent for teachers to 17 per cent for "business and finance professionals".
The TUC points out that the average density figure for employees in the associate professional category - which includes nurses, social workers and technicians - stands at 46 per cent. That compares with 34 per cent for the craft workers represented by the AEEU and 26 per cent for the less skilled occupations, the constituency of the TGWU.
A senior engineering union official said MSF should remember that it represented a wide range of people, not just those regarded as middle class: "I'm sure MSF members who have not had the benefit of an extended education will feel they have as much of a contribution to make as those with degrees."
A TGWU spokesman insisted its approach was an "inclusive" one: "MPs should be representative of society as a whole and proportionately should include people from different backgrounds and ethnicity, the disabled and both men and women."Reuse content