The whole course of the next Labour Government may be very considerably affected by the outcome of two trade union elections which are to take place at the beginning of July. The million-strong engineers’ union, the aeu, is choosing its two chief officers, secretary and president.

Unlike many big unions, the aeu insists on subjecting its leaders to regular elections. In spite of this stern democratic practice, it is very unusual for a leading officer to experience defeat before he retires, and in the case of the office of secretary there is a well-established tradition that assistant secretaries step up a rank as their superiors retire. It is all the more surprising, then, that Sir William Carron, the present President, has experienced the indignity of being compelled to suffer a second ballot. Sir William, besides lending his moral authority to the Bank of England, is an important man in the trade union movement. Insofar as the old-line right wing in the aeu, or for that matter, the tuc, even, are possessed of a focal figure, Sir William is probably he. Normally apprehensive about the powers of shop stewards, some of whom he once described as ‘werewolves’, Sir William has, during the past months, experienced a notable conversion. As quite a number of business journalists have noticed, the strongly disciplinarian figure of the aeu president has recently been seen at the centre of storms of militant rhetoric, particularly during such important recent disputes as the Port Talbot strike. Somewhat ungratefully, the Financial Times ruefully ended a recent editorial with these words: ‘so long as the aeu retains its present constitution one must expect outbursts of militancy and policy vacillation in election years.’

But for all the pain which Sir William has caused the staff of the Financial Times, during his spectacularly dogged and intransigent television appearances of the last months, scant remains the pleasure (recorded in votes) which he has provided aeu members. Firstly, an overwhelming proportion of them abstained from voting. This is not at all unusual, but at least it declares no great love or enthusiasm for the present establishment within the union. But secondly, Sir William’s vote took a catastrophic plunge from its previous level. The last time he stood, he gained 57,000 votes, which was almost 23,000 more than the total combined poll of his opponents. This time, because he failed to gain more votes than his opponents’ combined total, he must fight again. The result of the first round was:

*(Those marked with an asterisk go to a second ballot.)

Reg Birch, the strong runner-up, is a very well-known communist activist. He is a Divisional Organizer of the union, and so strong in his personal following that he was re-elected to that post unopposed. There can be no doubt of Birch’s vigour and intelligence: if he were elected, he would prove a formidable threat to the rationalizers of the trade union establishment. Can he win? Sir William’s supporters must be banking their chances on a considerably increased poll. If they can mobilize newspaper and television coverage, it is not impossible that they might get it. But it is by no means entirely certain that they will like it if they do. Of the votes already cast, it is quite possible that enough second preferences would go to Birch to take him home. Carlsson’s vote will be a consistently left-wing one, which may hesitate about choosing Birch for radical reasons, but which could not possibly sleep at night if it had ever gone near to thinking of supporting Carron. Boyd’s election address made a specific appeal for ‘more true trade unionists without any undue religious or political affiliation’ to take command. Whether his supporters’ commitment to this programme is stronger than their opposition to communism is an open question. The remaining contender, Thomas, fought on a militant programme, saying he was ‘completely dismayed by our executive council’. It seems possible that 9,000 people who voted for ‘complete dismay’ at the record of the executive would be likely to opt for Birch rather than Carron. Since Thomas comes from Openshaw, and since the elections for the Executive Council in his part of the world brought a left-wing Labour Party supporter, Hugh Scanlon, to office only last year, Sir William’s prospects still seem in doubt.

But even were he to ride home again, Carron faces a difficult situation. His chief partner, the secretary, is likely to displease him at every step.

For the secretaryship, there are four candidates. Two of them, Cranbrook and Iremonger, are as far as can be seen, outsiders. The real fight seems to be between the two present Assistant Secretaries, Conway and Roberts. The present secretary is retiring, so that Buggin’s law, which has in any case held strong sway over the years in the aeu, points a finger at these two people. Ernie Roberts is the senior assistant secretary, but that is the least of his qualifications. He is perhaps one of the most alert young trade union leaders at present in the field. Of firm left-wing persuasion, he has distinct ability. In the tense factionfight which has obviously dominated the aeu in recent years, it is no small feat for a lone, or virtually lone, independent socialist to hold his own at the shifting and treacherous centre of power, without capitulating at all to his formidable colleagues. But Roberts has not merely held his own. He has, in fact, played an increasingly important rôle in the development of the left in the trade union and labour movement as a whole. He was one of the small group of union leaders and mp’s who founded Union Voice, which has already in a little over a year established itself as a significant force. He is the man who put forward an industrial charter to the Labour Party, which could easily become, even now, a major election issue. Within his union, he edits a special paper for women and youth, which is breaking new ground. In short, he is a strong candidate.