The comrades are back at Blackpool

Observations of reds under the bed

They're back. Most people thought communism was dead and buried. But at the Trades Union Congress in Blackpool, Britain's tiny Communist Party staged a revival. Union leaders of all political shades, from Roger Lyons of Amicus to Mick Rix of Aslef, the train drivers' union, wrote prominent articles for the party's daily, the Morning Star. Unison, Britain's largest union, even paid for bulk copies of the paper so that delegates could enjoy a free copy.

Derek Simpson, newly elected leader of the AEEU section of Amicus, was among the up-and-coming men to be seen at well-attended Morning Star fringe meetings. All the contenders in the coming general secretary's election in the Transport and General Workers' Union are seeking the Morning Star's approval. The paper's annual social at the TUC on Tuesday night was noticeably more upbeat than in recent years.

And most of the events in the Winter Gardens pleased the comrades. Tough resolutions were passed calling for the repeal of all Tory anti-union laws. Privatisation and the government's private finance initiative were roundly condemned. Feelings have soured on whether Britain should join the euro. There was unanimous support for the firefighters in their plans for a strike to gain a 40 per cent pay rise. Above all, the TUC came close to opposing any war with Iraq, even one that secured United Nations approval. Tony Blair's modernising project now has few friends in the unions.

It is almost a return to the bad old days of the TUC of the 1970s, and the battles that helped to drive Labour into the political wilderness for 18 years. The Communist Party was at the height of its industrial influence, providing muscle and direction to broad-left groups in many unions in the struggle against wage restraint.

It is true the party can claim only one member of the TUC's general council - Anita Halpin of the NUJ. But her husband, Kevin, founding father of the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions in 1966, is the party's new industrial organiser. Both the main rail unions have recently appointed communists to key posts. And there is a widespread sympathy, even admiration, among many union leaders for the staying power of the old comrades. However, the world of earlier industrial triumphs has gone for ever, as Andrew Murray, prominent communist and shrewd organiser of the anti-Iraq war coalition, acknowledges. The big manufacturing plants have closed. Coal and shipbuilding have fallen. Now the party must look to the besieged public sector for followers, among teachers and nurses, civil servants and technicians.

But the communists are providing an organisational focus for the rising wave of angry young leaders who are being elected into union office. "They are the generation formed by years of bitter defeat under Thatcherism," says Murray. Now the party hopes to benefit from the widespread disillusion with new Labour among trade unionists. It opposes British membership of the euro in any circumstances. It opposes all privatisation of public enterprises and services. Above all, it is leading the campaign against the threat of war with Iraq.

The communists' resurgence is still a puzzle, however. Nowhere else in the western world does a party operate under that name. Even in Germany, the former communists have been relaunched as democratic socialists. Depressingly, many of its members look with nostalgia to the worst years of Stalinism for their ideological inspiration. So is it goodbye new unionism? If so, Tony Blair can only blame himself, having done too little to back John Monks on union modernisation. "The Prime Minister is now getting the union leaders he deserves," said one senior TUC figure.