TWO of Britain’s biggest unions are considering merging, forming a heavy-weight challenge to Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, as he prepares Labour’s manifesto for the general election.
Tony Woodley, who takes over from Sir Bill Morris as the general secretary of the Transport and General Workers union next week, said he was in favour of joining forces with another major union - most probably the GMB.
Mr Woodley, a leading member of the so-called "awkward squad", also announced a summit of "like-minded unions" to co-ordinate grassroots opposition to "ludicrous and divisive" Labour policies.
Any merger with the GMB would present a potential headache for the Prime Minister as he seeks to build support within the Labour rank and file for a forward-looking manifesto,
Mr Woodley told The Scotsman that the unions will step up their opposition to the government if it continues to pursue policies out of kilter with "traditional Labour values" such as foundation hospitals and top-up fees.
He suggested that a merger between the T&G and the GMB to form a super union made practical and political sense.
"It is obvious that the Transport and General Workers Union, the GMB and others have got to consider reducing costs and reducing unnecessary competitiveness and start concentrating on delivering for members in whichever union they are in. And therefore I’m personally up for any discussions that lessen competitive trade unionism and I would like to think other trade union leaders think likewise," he said.
Mr Woodley said he would like to see "one road transport union, one rail union and one big general union."
Relations between Labour and the unions reached a new low at the party conference last month when the "big four" - Dave Prentis of Unison, Kevin Curran of the GMB, Derek Simpson of Amicus and Mr Woodley - joined together to inflict three defeats on the leadership.
Raising the spectre of a return to the 1970s when the union barons held the balance of power in the Labour movement, Mr Woodley said relations between the big four were the most harmonious in living memory, and in a swipe at his predecessor and other union leaders who earned a knighthood for their services, he warned that the era of general secretaries willing to "cuddle" to the government for "political patronage" was over.
"Political patronage is not on my agenda. I think that’s what stands the new group of union leaders out from the past. It isn’t a case of wanting to cuddle up to the Prime Minister because it is nice to have a meal with him and tell your family.
"It isn’t a case of cuddling up to the Chancellor because ultimately you may end up with a gong, " he said.
However, Mr Woodley did go out of his way to praise Gordon Brown’s call at the party conference for a return to "traditional Labour values".
He said he hoped that this would be the message delivered to No 10 when Mr Blair enacts his conference promise to hold an extensive consultation exercise on the contents of the general election manifesto.
"If Brown was serious about rekindling those Labour values that’s what we have got to do.
"We have got to stop finding these ludicrous and divisive ideas like top-up fees and foundation hospitals, causing controversy when we should have consistency and trust," he said.
He claimed that if Mr Blair failed to heed this message then it could spell the end for New Labour.
"Is it the last chance for New Labour? Policies is a moving feast they have got to keep up with the voters."
He said there was "no doubt whatsoever" among his union members that the people advising Mr Blair were "a problem".
"People who have no trade union background at all - New Labour clones - these people who don’t understand the importance of us in our party.
"If he keeps listening to those people and keeps moving with policies that are not finding favour, I don’t for one minute think he will lose an election, but I do see a seriously fractured Labour majority," he said.
Mr Woodley said that the success of the Scottish Socialists in this year’s Holyrood elections should have rung warning bells across the Labour movement.
"If you analyse what has happened there with the SSP, that’s a real warning shot for Labour.
"People are deserting them by the droves, unlike in Wales who have carried on with a traditional old Labour culture.
"This is a big message for Scotland and for Wales," Mr Woodley said.