He's nobody else's John now, is Mr Smith

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HERE is the story of two Johns. One is tubby, bespectacled and not quite as genial as he looks. The other is tubby, bespectacled, not quite as genial as he looks, and has a moustache. Yesterday the first, John Smith, won an obscure little tussle over the second, John Edmonds. And - one other thing - his tiny victory was important for British politics.

Ever since John Edmonds became general secretary of the General, Municipal and Boilermakers' union in 1985, he has been the chattering classes' favourite trade unionist. He has been in favour of all the nice things - modernising the Labour Party, democratising trade unions and helping the low paid. He has many qualities. He is determined, practical, works hard, and has a talent for the memorable phrase. Above all, the words 'John Edmonds' have tended to be followed by the semi-automatic decoration, 'a staunch Kinnock supporter' or, more recently, 'a staunch Smith supporter'.

Inside the Labour leadership, it hasn't always felt like that. For Mr Edmonds has rather often seen the importance of reform and the importance of his union as tending in the same direction. He has been that useful anomaly, the trade union baron who saw (or seemed to see) that the days of trade union barons were over. His position as a modernising baron gave him huge influence. And, being human, he grew to enjoy this power.

On almost every issue, it seemed, the wise Labour leader needed to listen to Mr Edmonds, and then act accordingly. He castigated left-wing MPs, warned the party about its management, rammed home the need for this policy, rejected that. On many issues, he was on the side of the angels. Yet he was only a union leader. And according to Shadow Cabinet friends, both Mr Kinnock and now Mr Smith came to resent his swaggering influence - particularly as (they felt) Mr Edmonds too rarely delivered his union's support. A 'staunch supporter'? Well, not always staunch. And more a baron than a supporter.

'In Neil's day, Edmonds was always galumphing into the leader's office . . . we would think we had a deal on something, but he didn't always deliver,' says one of those involved. 'Then, he championed John for leader, and regards him with a rather proprietorial air.'

And John Smith? 'I think John's view of Edmonds is . . . changing.'

Among other leading Labour reformers in the Commons, the private view of Mr Edmonds is now on the lurid side of unprintable.

Now, finally, the demands of modernisation have hit, head-on, the stately office of union leader. Mr Smith had made one thing clear above all: he favoured one person, one vote in Labour decision-making. (To Labour people this is known as Omov, which makes it sound like a lavatory cleaner. The simpler and the older term is democracy. At any rate, it is bad news for union barons.)

Outwardly, Mr Edmonds seemed enthusiastic about Omov. He was a real reformer. Although a union baron himself he was ready to end the block vote system that gave union barons their power, and build a fully democratic Labour Party. But it wasn't, and isn't, quite as simple as that. The union bosses, including Mr Edmonds, said they were worried that ordinary trade unionists didn't lose their voice in the party.

So they proposed a system based on a register of Labour-supporting trade unionists. These would be a separate class of Labour Party members, not the ordinary off-the-street party activists. They would vote individually on issues, but their votes would be totted up by the union. The practical effect? That union bosses would keep 'their' members cordoned off. Union bosses would still be able to pose in Labour Party debates as the voice of their members. The union armies might look less monolithic. But they would still march behind the barons.

Instead, Mr Smith is calling the barons' bluff. You only want a voice for ordinary trade unionists? Fine: Labour will make it easy for ordinary trade unionists to join the party, at a cut-rate price, and with immediate voting powers. Once in possession of their party cards, they will become indistinguishable from other party members - no longer Mr Edmonds's, or anyone else's people. Just Labour people.

This may seem an abstruse little argument. It isn't. It is about power and who really wields it. Some of the union leaders emerging from yesterday's meeting looked disconsolate. They knew what was going on. They knew Mr Smith had scored a neat tactical victory. One Shadow Cabinet member predicted 'a prolonged sulk' from, among others, Mr Edmonds.

In public, just like Mr Kinnock, Mr Smith will be warmly enthusiastic about Mr Edmonds. He will take his money, and grin at his jokes, and pump his hand. I have no idea how they will behave in private, but the two men will probably be warily civil, perhaps even friendly. Mr Smith will pour out his whisky and listen to Mr Edmonds's opinions, as of old.

But something in their relationship will have changed. Mr Edmonds will find it harder to feel proprietorial about the other John. By refusing to blink when the unions said that full-scale democracy in the party might be difficult, Mr Smith has asserted his authority - stood up to the parent - grown a little taller. That makes him a more credible potential prime minister. Of course, yesterday's other commitment, to a referendum on voting reform, is the more obvious marker that Mr Smith is growing in office. But his polite, understated, casting- off of the other John is what really matters. He's now his own John.