A product of his idealistic upbringing, Paul Mackney favours unity between the lecturers' unions. Simon Midgley profiles a charismatic leader

Last week, Paul Mackney, the general secretary of the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (Natfhe), travelled to Scarborough to attend the conference of his rivals, the Association of University Teachers. It was a bit like Daniel entering the lion's den: the AUT has been striking, whereas the traditionally more militant Natfhe settled with the employers. The tensions between the two unions have been clear. But Mackney came with an olive branch. "United we bargain, divided we beg," he told the delegates. "We stand or fall together."

Many were suspicious about his message of peace, worried that he was making a new bid for a merger, but Mackney is far too subtle an operator to hijack delegates of a rival union without doing a lot of groundwork first. His appearance in Scarborough is, however, symbolic of his style - open, self-confident, immensely warm and displaying a rare leadership quality. Those qualities have stood him in good stead at Natfhe.

Elected seven years ago, Mackney, who is 54, took over the union when it was in danger of imploding. It was almost £1m in the red, members of the national executive were at each other's throats and staff morale was at an all-time low. Undaunted, he set about getting the union back to solvency (by cutting staff and reorganising), winning the respect of staff, banging the heads of national executive members together and presenting a credible face to the nation via the media. Two years ago he was re-elected for an unprecedented second term in an uncontested election - which says something about the regard in which he is held.

To discover where his strength and charisma come from, one need look no further than Christianity and the Labour party. The important influences were his parents. His evangelical vicar father impressed on him the importance of racial equality and tolerance, and his Christian Socialist mother the virtues of being optimistic and open. The family did not have much money and his boarding school education at Christ's Hospital School in Horsham was paid for by the Lord Mayor of London. It was a brutal regime where the older boys beat the younger ones, but it gave Mackney a decent education. There were a couple of teachers in his sixth-form years who inspired him to enjoy English literature and modern history.

Those were the heady days of the événements in Paris and protests against the Vietnam war. Mackney went to Exeter University to do a degree in politics. Here, caught up in the optimism and idealism of the time, he joined the International Socialists. In 1975 he was expelled for not submitting to that organisation's discipline.

A long-time observer of the further education scene says that Mackney is very much a product of the idealism of the late Sixties. He plays the guitar and harmonica, sings, sports a beard and has a luxuriant head of - now white - hair. In the Sixties he was a fan of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen.

After politics, he enrolled on a social work course but dropped out towards the end of his second year. During this time he campaigned for claimants' unions, self-help organisations for the unemployed, and prepared a consumer guide to the benefits system. There followed a spell in Hamburg, teaching English as a foreign language, but eventually he found his vocation in further education when he landed a job as a part-time lecturer of social studies at Poole Technical College.

A year later he moved to Hall Green Technical College, now South Birmingham College, where he spent the next 17 years teaching. Eventually, he became head of the Birmingham Trade Union Studies Centre.

In parallel to this, Mackney rose through Natfhe's branch ranks to be a union official, becoming known locally as "Deals on Wheels" because of the number of college contract agreements he managed to broker. After winning the top job at the college lecturers' union, he became the first Natfhe general secretary to be elected to the TUC General Council.

It is not only trade unionists who respect him, however. The principals of colleges and vice-chancellors of universities also have a lot of time for him. "He is immensely likeable and massively widely read - way outside the standard set of political reading of a left-wing union leader," says a source. "He will suddenly quote things from all sorts of odd and unexpected places.

"He is also somebody whom the employers feel can deliver what he promises, and bring his executive and members with him, which is very important for any general secretary." One of the feathers in his cap is that he exposed a Stoke college principal for running a pub in Wales while on long-term sick leave. More importantly, he fought to establish the Commission for Black Staff in Further Education.

Natfhe members acknowledge that Mackney is an extremely effective negotiator. "He is passionate about further and higher education. That buys a lot of respect among his colleagues," one member said. Since his arrival as general secretary, Natfhe's influence in educational and political circles has grown.

David Gibson, the former chief executive officer of the Association of Colleges, did not always agree with his policies but found him to be honest, straight and a man with values. "I think we tried to demonstrate the value of working together. I like to think, and I hope he does, that we changed the relationship between the AoC and Natfhe considerably."

Mackney has a breadth of vision that is quite unusual these days, says Tom Wilson, who used to be Natfhe's head of universities, and is now head of the TUC's organisation and services department. "He does not just care about pay and conditions - important though those issues are - but is very concerned about racial injustice, for example."

He has been a passionate campaigner against racial discrimination and against the British National Party, which is the kind of thing that many Natfhe members care about, because it's the reason they went into education. "On a personal level, he is a warm, sympathetic, nice bloke," says Wilson. "He is the best boss I have ever had."

As well as working tirelessly to improve lecturers' pay and conditions, Mackney is hopeful that eventually Natfhe and the AUT will merge to form one union. This would bring economies of scale and a more effective negotiating organisation.

"Sooner or later this will happen," he says. "One of my roles is to remove the obstacles in the way and to try to encourage our side to find the generosity [of spirit] to make sure it [a merger] happens."