Leading Article: An old-style union mud sling

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The Independent Online
Why should anyone be interested in the election of a new leader of the Transport and General Workers' Union?

One reason is that it is a good story. As good stories should be, it is rich in irony. Jack Dromey, the challenger, is a friend of Tony Blair, who would like him to win. But Mr Dromey argues for a pounds 4- or even pounds 5-an- hour minimum wage - the sort of figure his wife, Harriet Harman, Labour's employment spokeswoman, would disagree with even if she wanted to specify a figure, which she does not. Asked what the Labour Party thinks of his policy, he says, "You will have to ask them." Instead, journalists demand the publication of the minutes of the Dromey-Harman household's breakfast conversations.

In the other corner, Bill Morris, the incumbent, is also a Blair supporter - although he argued the union executive's hard-left line against the new Clause IV. The tortured Mr Morris, the first black leader of a big union and hence an important role model, the decent man held prisoner in an ideological time warp, forced to argue against his personal beliefs, is the stuff of formula fiction.

But the TGWU election is also important for other reasons. It is no longer the biggest union in the country - that title is now held by the public service union Unison, formed of a merger of Nupe, Cohse and Nalgo. The leadership of that union, and of the third-largest, the GMB general union, is also being contested this year.

Together, these contests are significant not only for the trade union movement but also for the Labour Party. They represent the first major set-piece battles among the unions since Tony Blair became leader. The way these elections are contested and the results that emerge will give us some sign as to how far trade unionists are prepared to face the realities of the modern working world.

In this light, we might have expected debate to have focused on how to make unions more democratic and their leaders more accountable. We could have expected discussion about how to make them more efficient and vigorous in furthering their members' interests.

Neither candidate in the TGWU election has really seized the opportunity to tackle this broader agenda, although Mr Dromey's criticism of Mr Morris for failing to ballot the members over Clause IV marks him out as the more democratic. Yesterday, the campaign degenerated into an old-style mud sling, which damages not just the TGWU but all unions. Those voting in the election deserve more impressive candidates than they have been offered, leaders who can produce a blueprint for the type of unions that would be best for their members in the new century. So far, the candidates have not sketched out this big picture. Instead, we are simply stuck with a scrap over whether Tony Blair's friend will prevail.