Leading Article: Silence, please, union bosses

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The Independent Online
WHEN union officials meet to discuss the Labour leadership contest, they should note the results of the Independent/Newsnight poll published today. They may be embarrassed. Our poll shows that members who pay the political levy overwhelmingly support modernisation of the party.

Rank-and-file trade unionists are no longer the last bastion of militant left-wing views. Instead, they reveal themselves to be models of moderation and a mirror of the population at large. Not only does a majority agree with the changes to the Labour Party introduced by Neil Kinnock and John Smith, a quarter of those polled think the reforms did not go far enough.

In the face of this groundswell of support for change, the opposition, or grudging acceptance, that some leaders of big unions gave to these developments is exposed as the anachronism it is. Preferences for candidates bidding to take John Smith's place tell the same story. Tony Blair, who, as employment spokesman, incurred the enmity of some union figures by pushing the party into abandoning the 'closed shop', is the favourite. He is supported by 37 per cent of those eligible to vote, well head of John Prescott (22) and Gordon Brown (21). Only one in five members would want a return of the closed shop.

So where do these results leave the people who head the trade union movement? They certainly look a little foolish and out of touch with their members. But they may yet feel tempted to throw their weight behind candidates who support the traditional values that once secured block votes. Such a strategy would be a mistake.

For trade union executives to issue voting recommendations would be to ape the worst aspects of outdated undemocratic structures that are at last disappearing. Certainly, officials should feel free to declare their personal preferences. But no member needs instruction from the collective leadership to decide whom to choose. There is plenty of opportunity for each candidate to lobby the 4.5 million levy- paying voters through the media or directly by mail and at meetings.

Some union leaders have already decided not to back any of the contenders publicly. They do not want egg on their faces after the election, nor do they wish to start off on the wrong foot with whoever wins. Colleagues would be wise to follow suit. The evidence of today's poll shows that trade union members know their own minds and should be left to exercise their choice without union leaders breathing down their necks.

True, the electoral system remains unsatisfactory. It is absurd that thousands of Tory trade unionists who pay the political levy are entitled to vote in a Labour leadership contest. The election should instead be limited to full members of the party. 'One member one vote' should genuinely be adopted. Yet despite this serious flaw, this election promises to be the most democratic in Labour's history, a change that should be recognised as an important step in the right direction.