Why Gordon should move fast

Observations on Labour and the unions

Amid all the speculation about the future of Tony Blair, and the prospects for a Gordon Brown succession, everybody seems to have forgotten the unions. They, after all, hold a third of the votes in the electoral college that chooses the Labour leader.

Are they excitedly waiting for Gordon? Before the election, Tony Woodley, leader of the Transport and General Workers' Union, called for Blair to go, but a few days ago a senior T&G figure told me the union was as concerned about Brown's advocacy of US-style labour deregulation as about anything Blair stands for.

If Brown wants the job, he would do best to make his move before next May's local government elections. Unions with many members in local authorities dread facing a new swath of Tory councils, all bent on squeezing out unions, making employees less secure, and introducing market "disciplines". And no one doubts that Blair these days is an electoral liability. So these unions would like the Chancellor to ride to Labour's rescue in plenty of time.

After that, they might start looking around for someone else to support. A glance at David Blunkett, Charles Clarke or John Reid would send them scuttling back to Gordon. But if there was time to groom, say, Robin Cook, important union figures might be tempted.

For the moment, the line is "policies, not personalities". And on policies, the unions feel they are stronger than they have been since Blair became leader in 1994. This is not just because Blair - the least union-friendly Labour leader since the party first elected one in 1922 - is weaker than ever. It is also because last year they got him to sign up to the Warwick Agreement, which included commitments he had previously refused to give, such as the protection of pensions when firms are taken over, less outsourcing of health services, and recognition of unions as "stakeholders".

It was only because of Warwick that the unions did what they always did before as a matter of course, and put their resources at Labour's disposal for the election. Amicus triumphantly announced to its members "Labour and the radical third term", which shows what a weasel word "radical" has become. Amicus's left-wing leader, Derek Simpson, and the sharp-suited men from Downing Street could both endorse the headline, and mean radically different things.

Unions set much store by Warwick, and if they suspect Labour's top brass might like to ditch it now the election is out of the way, they do not say so. Simpson says: "We expect Warwick to be implemented in full, and we will work with the Labour Party to develop Warwick II." This, he explains, will include compulsory occupational pensions and what he calls "a completely level playing field" between unions and management.

So, with no general election due for at least four years, he thinks Labour leaders will go further than they did with one just over the horizon? Certainly, says Simpson without irony: "It does not matter who is leader: I expect the leader to develop policies that appeal to members of my union."

So should Blair resign now, soon, or as late as possible? Simpson, whose union's policy conference (14-18 May) is the first after the election, will not be drawn, but he has some deceptively friendly-sounding advice for the PM: "Blair has declared that he will not fight another election, so he should now develop a more consensual approach. Then, I think, we will win back some of those seats we lost last week."

Warwick, he says, helped deal with the activists' view that the government was listening more closely to business than to its natural supporters. He was cheered to hear the CBI chief, Digby Jones, worrying that the lower majority would force Labour to listen too much to the unions. "If this was a football match, we'd be spending more time in the other half," says Simpson. And that applies whether the referee is called Tony or Gordon.