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29 September 2003

Is this union leader the victim of a dastardly Blairite plot?

Labour party conference - Francis Beckett hears allegations of secret meetings, tape recordings, sin

By Francis Beckett

Derek Simpson, the left-winger who now leads the trade union Amicus-AEEU, does not want to get rid of Tony Blair. But he is sure Tony Blair wants to be rid of him. So sure, in fact, that when he met the Prime Minister, he told him to call off his hatchet man, otherwise known as the Northern Ireland minister John Spellar.

You may wonder what the Northern Ireland minister has to do with the unions – indeed, Blair replied that he did not think Spellar had time to spare from his ministerial duties for the internal politics of Amicus. But Spellar was an officer of the electricians’ union (later merged into Amicus) for 23 years up to 1992; he is a right-wing trade union fixer of the old school who learnt at the feet of the veteran anti-communist Frank Chapple and has a long history at the rougher end of Labour and union politics, exercising his muscle always in favour of the Labour right.

Simpson argues that Spellar owes his various junior ministerial positions since 1997 to his ability to deliver the Amicus vote at Labour and TUC conferences. Even as a minister, he kept up an office at the union’s headquarters, until Simpson was elected general secretary last summer – overthrowing Spellar’s close ally and Blair’s favourite union leader, Sir Ken Jackson – and had him evicted. Simpson thinks that, in Jackson’s day, Downing Street used to phone Spellar and say: “John, can you have a word with Ken? We need a bit of leverage here.” Now Jackson has gone and no such leverage is available.

So is Blair secretly plotting to get rid of the democratically elected leader of a big union? Simpson says, “You’d have to ask him that”, which means yes. He adds: “There is some concern, there are some people involved in politics, questions about what role they are playing . . . I have had things drawn to my attention.” These include an internal memorandum, which fell into Simpson’s hands around Christmas-time. Its burden was an “attempt to remove me, a coup, to replace me with someone from the same camp that Ken Jackson came from”. Across the top, according to Simpson, it read in very bold letters: “Not to be photocopied”. Simpson has shown it to no one except Blair.

It is signed by someone called “John” and addressed to “Pat”. Could these correspondents be John Spellar and Pat McFadden, a Blair adviser with deeper roots in the labour movement than most? Simpson is sure they are – but both men deny any knowledge of the letter.

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There is more. A rallying call went out for a meeting of Jackson’s supporters, who call themselves “Members First” (“Members Last would be a more accurate title,” says Simpson), and it was to be held in the building where Spellar has his West Midlands constituency office. “The name Members First,” says Simpson, “reflects Spellar’s political grouping in parliament, Labour First.” Simpson admits “you could say all this is circumstantial”, but moves on to say that union officials (not Spellar) have secretly tape-recorded meetings with their new general secretary. “Some people have been led to believe I have horns growing out of my head, that I’m about to destroy the country. Some of them fall for that, so they do silly things, like believing they need to record things in case something happens, or record some sort of snippet they can run to the media with, a great expose of some plot. But everything they hear in those meetings is about the interests of our members, so they go away with their tails between their legs.”

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Simpson does not trust Blair an inch. It was Simpson who came out of the TUC dinner on 9 September at which Blair spoke and found that the press had been given a speech with an entirely different flavour from the one he had just heard. Simpson had heard “a friendly, jocular speech”, while journalists had been told that Blair had delivered “a slap in the face” to the unions.

Afterwards, Simpson received a letter from the former MEP Ken Coates. The story, wrote Coates, was “eerily reminiscent of the visit Tony Blair made to the European Parliamentary Labour Party where he was alleged to be admonishing it for opposing his revision of the Labour Party constitution. In the meeting he was affable, even somewhat diffident. The hatchet work was all done outside the meeting where Alastair Campbell and others were briefing the press about the content of a meeting which never actually took place.”

That is what happened at the TUC, insists Simpson. “I came out of a meeting where the Prime Minister made a few quips, smiled, then got a bit serious.” He does a rather good take-off of Blair, hunching forward and putting his hands on his chest. “He finished to fairly rapturous applause. And the text of the speech had been starkly presented outside as though he’d been in there and said, ‘Now look, you lot, I know there’s sensible people here and they’ll join with me in slapping these extremists down.’ It was absolutely different, not just from the words but from the mood and the tone of his speech.”

Yet Simpson continues: “I’m not bothered who leads the Labour Party. It’s not the leader that’s the problem, it’s the policies.” Not for Simpson the comfort that Roy Hattersley and others find in the idea of waiting for Gordon. But he will never leave the Labour Party, or vote for anyone else. And he does not want to use his union’s financial clout to change Labour policies: “If a billionaire came along and said to Blair, ‘Here’s a pile of money, I want this policy, I want a passport’ or something, the whole country would be outraged. The person doing it could be seen as buying policies. If we were to say, ‘Unless you give us these policies we won’t give you the money’ – what’s the difference?”

What are his complaints? “The gap between rich and poor is actually widening. This is not what’s happening in France and Germany. The government says we have record low unemployment, but many of the new jobs are part-time, short-term, insecure, agency-type work. The government has argued for the flexible workforce, and to achieve that, it’s watered down European legislation, minimised any intrusion into the way employers can hire and fire, arguing that this brings investment. But it’s just as easy for investment to go as to come. It makes it very easy for a company to pull out and lose UK jobs, compared to elsewhere in Europe. The jobs we’re losing are the quality, high-skill jobs, which we are told we have to engage with.”

That, he says, is why there is “a fundamental loss of faith” in Labour. He draws the analogy of a football supporter (he used to have a season ticket at Sheffield United) – you don’t mind your team losing sometimes if you can see they’re trying, but if they don’t try, you’ll find something else to do with your Saturday afternoon. The government does not look as though it’s trying.

So what can he do? “We can’t tell the government what to do; we have to argue and campaign for what we want,” he says. But there may be a little more than that. The emergence of Simpson and the new transport workers’ leader, Tony Woodley, in quick succession in two of the country’s biggest unions is eerily reminiscent of the emergence of Hugh Scanlon and Jack Jones as leaders of the same two unions in the 1970s. They represent, as Jones and Scanlon did, a definite break from a more right-wing recent past, and their election was fiercely opposed by the previous incumbents. They are old friends, used to working together, and they want to change fundamentally the direction their unions and the Labour government are going in.

The analogy appeals strongly to Woodley, though Simpson is a little more cautious, saying that the problems they face are very different from those of the 1970s. But Jones and Scanlon, known in their day as the “terrible twins”, became the most powerful union leaders Britain has ever known (with the possible excep-tion of Ernest Bevin) and it does not seem at all fanciful to see Simpson and Woodley as the terrible twins de nos jours. Whether or not Tony Blair is involved in a plot against Simpson, he has every reason to be worried.