The angry young men turn on Blair

Observations on the trade unions

Sir Ken Jackson's humiliation in the election to be general secretary of the Amicus-AEEU union at the hands of an unknown left-winger from Sheffield (as we went to press, further recounts were delaying the final result) is just the latest sign of a widening discontent among the ranks of organised workers. This is starting to alarm 10 Downing Street. The Prime Minister's favourite trade union leader, Jackson proved a doughty champion of the new Labour project, from a union that has been a right-wing bastion for the past 20 years. Now a resurgent left is confident that it can make further inroads into a demoralised trade union movement.

Over the next two years, both the Transport and General Workers Union and the GMB general union - two of the largest unions - will elect new leaders, as Bill Morris and John Edmonds reach retirement. With the likely departure of John Monks from the TUC to become general secretary of the European Trades Union Confederation, a new face will also be taking over at Congress House. In a short period of time, a new generation of union leaders will be coming into power. It is not a prospect that will cheer Blair, to judge by what is happening.

In ballot after ballot in union elections, establishment or new Labour-backed candidates have already suffered resounding defeats. The angry young men now in charge of the unions representing railway workers, firefighters, college and university lecturers, civil servants and communication workers are in no mood to seek deals with the government. Some, such as Bob Crow of the RMT transport union and Mark Serwotka of the PCS civil service union, are not even Labour Party members. All of them may be on the left, opposed to privatising the public services and keen to press for higher pay and job protection for their members through a return to strikes, but their emergence as leaders reflects industrial disgruntlement rather than a shift to the political left.

The new leaders won power because they argued that their unions must return to basics as industrial and not political organisations. Unions should, they argued, represent the demands and fears of their members first and foremost. Tony Woodley, the surprise victor in the struggle for the deputy's job in the T & G, made a shrewd appeal to his voters by claiming to be an industrial negotiator and not a political strategist. In the Amicus-AEEU election, the left-winger Derek Simpson criticised partnership deals in industry and called for his union to become more answerable to its members. Billy Hayes in the Communication Workers Union (CWU) said he would give all power to his members in the mail depots.

Senior union figures fear Blair and his colleagues are being too complacent. The Department of Trade and Industry has now published documents on the future of workplaces and the labour market that almost entirely ignore any role for the unions. TUC leaders, feeling marginalised and unloved, can now point to the threats from below as a warning of turbulent times ahead.

Wednesday's strike by low-paid local authority manual workers for a 6 per cent pay rise - the first time they have struck since the 1979 winter of discontent- may also be a harbinger of the new mood. The railways look set for permanent disruption; the public-sector workers are on the march. They may lack the power and importance they enjoyed 30 years ago, when they humiliated successive Labour and Conservative governments, but they could still inflict lasting damage on the new Labour project just when it seems to have found its social-democratic commitment to high public spending.

Robert Taylor is a research associate at the LSE's Centre for Economic Performance on the future of the unions project