Union chief's verdict: 'I wish Gordon Brown was leader'

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The Independent Online
A PROMINENT trade union leader accused Tony Blair yesterday of failing to understand working people and admitted he would rather have the Chancellor as Prime Minister. "I would prefer Gordon Brown as leader," said John Edmonds, general secretary of the GMB general union. "He understands us."

Mr Edmonds' attack, which reflects a growing disenchantment with Mr Blair among union bosses, came when he spoke candidly to a debating society at Cambridge University.

In a warning which will be seized on by the Tories, Mr Edmonds predicted an outbreak of industrial militancy if Labour wins a second term. "Very soon after the next election, there will be a big bust-up between the unions and the Government if public sector pay continues to decrease in relation to the private sector," he said.

The "winter of discontent" in 1978-79 came before an election, he said, admitting the timing was a mistake. "In our own dim-witted way, we eventually realised that wasn't such a good idea, so this time we'll wait until after the election."

Mr Edmonds comments came after TUC leaders criticised the Government for offering executives tax relief on share options in the same week that it proposed cuts in benefits for the disabled.

"Tony Blair doesn't understand the ethos of the working man," Oxford- educated Mr Edmonds told the Cambridge undergradutes. "He thinks that if you had any merit, you'd start a business, or become a journalist or lawyer.

"He's never worked for someone else. Most of the people around him have never worked for someone else. They wonder: why would anyone want to be an employee?"

Things would have been different if John Smith had lived, Mr Edmonds said. "He was a much more conservative, much more reassuring figure." But while Mr Smith would have comfortably won the 1997 election, he would have been less likely to win a second term, Mr Edmonds said. "The Labour Party would be much less uneasy. John wouldn't take the risks Tony takes."

Mr Edmonds predicted that if Mr Blair "fell under the proverbial Number 11 bus tomorrow," he would be succeeded not by Mr Brown but by Mo Mowlam, the cabinet enforcer. "She's phenomenally popular with the party. She's extraordinary," he said.

He predicted that Ken Livingstone would become Mayor of London despite Mr Blair's determination to stop him. "It's very difficult to devise an electoral system where Ken doesn't win, unless you have a clause about fat men with beards called Dobson."

Mr Edmonds predicted a very low turnout at the next general election, saying it would be a contest between Labour and apathy. "And apathy's winning at the moment."

After 54 Labour MPs voted against the cuts in incapacity benefit on Wednesday, Mr Blair faced another rebellion last night when five Labour MPs, led by Tony Benn, joined Tories in tabling a Commons motion attacking his "semi-presidential style of government".