THE SHOCK defeat of Mick Rix in the election for general secretary of the train drivers' Aslef union brought a glimmer of relief to Tony Blair's ailing government last week. Mick Rix lost to Shaun Brady by 3,299 votes to 4,475 on a turnout of over 45 percent.
Rix became Aslef general secretary five years ago. That election signalled the rise of the 'awkward squad' of new left union leaders. New Labour and TUC officials are hoping that Rix's defeat will herald the end of the swing to the left in the unions and will discipline critics of the government.
But Shaun Brady was not able to win by pledging support for Blair or his policies. Instead Brady's campaign sought to exploit the gap in the union between Rix's policies and the rank and file by standing on an 'anti-political' platform, which tapped conservative traditions in the union. Brady, who was once accused of sexist behaviour on a trade union course, attacked moves in the union to improve representation of women, black and gay members.
'Central to his campaign was a website,' says one senior figure in the union. 'It posed as a forum for discussion. That meant it could contain reactionary, sometimes libellous postings, while claiming they were not part of Brady's official campaign. His public message was that he would stand up for the 'real concerns' of members rather than 'side issues'. He also tapped resentment against Mick from local and national officials who had been strong supporters of the previous general secretary, Lew Adams. Adams, who now sits on the government's Strategic Rail Authority, ran Brady's campaign, and there is evidence of behind the scenes support from some train operating companies, particularly in London and the south east of England. But the central issue is that not enough work was done to counter this kind of right wing campaign and explain the policies the union was adopting under Mick.'
One Aslef activist in the Manchester area told Socialist Worker, 'The organisation at grassroots level for Mick wasn't there. 'There was some coordination among the left five years ago when he won. But we allowed that to dwindle.'
At this year's Aslef conference, for example, many left policies were passed with the support of the leadership, but often with the same three or four delegates out of 75 speaking for them. 'It was a breath of fresh air to have someone putting forward left policies from the top,' says Finn Brennan, an Aslef activist on London Underground.
'But a major lesson from all this is that we cannot just do that from above. It needs to shake up the union as a whole and lead to people in every depot arguing for them.'
Brady's 'non-political' platform could even tap some of the bitterness with the train operating companies and the government from the left. For example, Mick Rix argued strongly for not changing the union link with the Labour Party, believing it could be used to pull the party to the left. This narrowed his base to those who signed up to 'reclaim Labour'.
There are specific reasons for the left's defeat in Aslef. It is a small union and it does not take many votes to defeat an incumbent official. But last week's election result is a warning for every trade unionist. It shows that winning top positions in the union machine is not by itself enough to build the left and a fightback against the government and the bosses.