Jackson's Hole

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New Labour's favourite union leader is facing problems in the forthcoming election.

A remarkable transformation appears to have overtaken Sir Ken Jackson in recent weeks--morphing from his customary incarnation as great lummox into the D'Artagnan of the TUC. Presumably this is not entirely unrelated to the fact that Sir Ken finds himself up for election again, an experience he had not entirely bargained for and one which he has not undergone since 1995. For an unreconstructed Blairite, ever eager to pontificate about one person voting rights inside the Labour Party or ballot-rigging by Communists in the old electricians' union, it is indeed a remarkable fact that Ken Jackson has never been subjected to election by the entire membership of his own union.

'Blair's favourite union leader', became leader as the result of what Jackson himself describes as 'a bizarre series of events'. In short, after the old engineers' and electricians' unions (the AEEU and EETPU) merged in 1992 (paving the way for the EETPU's resumption of TUC membership) four of the leading figures in the new union (Gavin Laird, Bill Jordan, Paul Gallagher and then Davey Hall) all disappeared off the scene in quick succession.

First, Jackson became acting general secretary of the EETPU when Paul Gallagher resigned due to ill health. Then, when he stood for the position of general secretary (of the EETPU only) against another virtual unknown, Barry Davis, he managed to scrape in--by 47,642 to 34,987 votes. Because of the rules on the merger which were in place at the time, and in the absence of an immediate challenger, Jackson then became general secretary of both the EETPU and the AEEU, with a combined membership of about 700,000. In other words, roughly 7 percent of the AEEU/EETPU membership have ever actually voted for Jackson. Make that 4 percent, if you base it on the total membership of Amicus, which now also includes the old MSF--of around 1.1 million.

More than a quarter of Labour MPs currently sitting in the House of Commons are sponsored by Amicus--the largest single representation by any union--and Amicus is the biggest affiliate to the Labour Party, with more votes than any other organisation at the Labour Party conference.

Despite the feebleness of his own mandate, this has never prevented the leadership trundling Jackson out at every opportunity to lend his not inconsiderable weight to official policy--whether it be by ensuring that his own members are denied a ballot over support for Frank Dobson or Ken Livingstone in the election for London Mayor; or by lining up with the most reactionary elements in the press to attack fellow rail workers when they are on strike (even though his own members in the industry supported Aslef and the RMT); or by undermining the opposition of every other major union to PPP on the London Underground and in the NHS, to the extent of organising local teach-ins proclaiming the benefits of private funding.

Nor has it stopped Jackson and others in the leadership from systematically dismantling a democratic structure within the AEEU which had otherwise survived virtually intact since its inception by the great radical socialist Tom Mann in the 1920s. The main idea of this structure was that executive powers would be invested in the hands of the union's executive but that these powers would also be counterbalanced in two key ways. One was the requirement that all full time officials would have to stand for election at regular intervals (usually every three years). The other was that there would also be elections for all the other positions.

In the last few years every last remnant of this structure has been taken apart at district and divisional level and, for all but a few key positions, the need for regular election has been done away with.

Supporters of Derek Simpson--the AEEU official who has dared to challenge Jackson's disingenuous attempt to stay on as general secretary for another two years beyond his official retirement age without the trouble of standing for election again--are not slow to point out that many of the key people involved in the de-democratisation of the AEEU are actually throwbacks to the period when the leadership of the EETPU connived with Rupert Murdoch to smash the print unions at Wapping. And they have a handy contact in the cabinet in the form of John Spellar, Stephen Byers' deputy and former sidekick of Eric Hammond (and a founder member of the SDP).

Along with the brand of democracy which allowed the EETPU to spend a number of years riding roughshod over other unions in their hunt for new members went a form of arrogance which eventually led to their expulsion from the TUC amid widespread rejoicing. But it is also clear that New Labour's fingerprints are all over this particular piece of attempted gerrymandering, and for one very important reason. A defeat for Jackson would be an absolute catastrophe for the government. Not only would Blair's one and only reliable union ally be out of the picture--the stage would be set for one of the most dramatic shifts in the trade union movement for many years.

Such a possibility has already been heralded more than once in the past year or two, with the elections of Mark Serwotka, Bob Crow, Mick Rix and Paul Mackney to prominent positions. And it is this change in the mood of many ordinary trade unionists which has sent New Labour into the panic room and has even led to the ridiculous spectacle of full time AEEU officials turning up at different branches to win nominations for Jackson.

The union's full time apparatus is under instructions to get the votes out. But it is by no means impossible that Derek Simpson will cause a massive upset. Not only has Ken Jackson's own branch (in Wigan) nominated Simpson, but he also claims the support of an impressive list of key workplace branches--including Ford, Vauxhall, Rover, Nissan, British Aerospace, Heathrow Airport, London Underground, Rolls Royce and steel industry branches in Sheffield, Scunthorpe, Corby and Llanwern. The Derek Simpson campaign can be contacted at www.amicusunitygazette.com.

And, just to set those new Labour sphincters on full tremble, it is worth remembering that, on the last occasion that the membership of the AEEU (engineering section) were actually allowed to vote for their general secretary (in 1995), they picked a left winger from Tyneside, Davey Hall, to succeed his right wing predecessor, Bill Jordan, by 74,060 to 50,564 votes and against all expectations.