Last month The Times presented GMB leader Kevin Curran as a wild card in the trade union pack. He was reported as coming to the end of his patience with New Labour and hinting at the need for a new political party. In fact, he had simply reminded everyone that it was the unions that created the Labour Party and that they could, if they wished, find a new political partner. For the moment, however, he is more interested in returning Labour to its original values.
Curran strikes me as a man with a long-term game plan. He comes over as someone who is confidently moving on to new political and trade union territory. Increasingly, he makes it his business to cross the traditional labour movement divide between the industrial (the responsibility of the trade unions) and the social and political (the responsibility of the Labour Party).
I caught up with him as he made a highly political speech, laying into the government's pro-market philosophy, at the Defend Council Housing fringe meeting at last month's TUC. In his view, unions must move into the social sphere abandoned by New Labour. 'It's important we take up local issues affecting our members,' he says. To this end the GMB has played a leading role in anti-fascist activity, in community unionism like the living-wage-inspired Telco movement in east London, and in the Workers Beer Company and the Left Field at the Glastonbury festival (see 'The people's republic of south London', September 2003).
And Curran recognises the significance of the social forum movement. 'The important thing about these young people,' he says, 'is that they put people before the market. When I was young and looking for ways of overcoming injustice, I became a socialist. These people take a more pick and mix approach, but they are committed to people and we want to work with them.'
The GMB has also taken a first step towards changing the union relationship with Labour. 'If members assess their local MP as diametrically opposed to what the unions stand for, they can withdraw the union's money and spend it elsewhere. We are back to the days before the Labour Representation Committee, when unions supported the candidates that supported them.' In other words, Labour can no longer take union support for granted.
The significance of Curran's challenge to New Labour is all the greater because it comes from a loyalist. GMB members on the left remember him staunchly defending the government's acceptance of Tory spending limits. He believed that the key thing was for Labour to win a second term: then it would pull a radical social democratic rabbit out of the ministerial red boxes. 'The new ministers had no experience of government; they were up against Thatcherised civil servants. We thought we should give them time to acquire the skills of management.'
No rabbits appeared. 'We have nearly finished a second term, and there is no sign of a radical direction.' Now Curran talks about how New Labour has moved in a direction with which he has nothing in common. The result is increasing disengagement from the party and an erosion of its vote. He fears the worst: a depoliticisation of the unions on the one hand, and electoral defeat on the other. 'The vote is very soft.'
What's the solution? He'd like Tony Blair to go, but does not rest his hopes on a new leader. 'There's nobody who excites me particularly.' Instead, he holds up the model of unions pressurising Labour's leadership to engage with the wider party. It worked at July's Warwick University meeting of the party's National Policy Forum, leading to agreements on rights at work; though Curran is not as enthusiastic now as he was in the immediate post-Warwick euphoria. 'Much has been undermined by the [return] of [former health secretary Alan] Milburn,' he remarks with a grimace. 'But we got them to the negotiating table. If [the unions] stick together we can make them listen.'
The emphasis is on exploiting the bargaining power of the big four trade unions: the GMB, the TGWU, Amicus and Unison. Ask Curran whether his union might back alternative candidates, and he sits up straight. 'Trade unions are disciplined, united organisations. We will support no other candidates.'
For the moment, therefore, it's a matter of pushing the existing structures of the Labour party to the limits. But you get the sense that after the election, whatever happens, a new phase in the game plan will open up.
Hilary Wainwright is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective and a fellow of the Transnational Institute.