Doug's young pretenders

25th April 2003 at 01:00
The free sandwiches highlighted on the flyer for the fringe meeting advertising the launch of John Illingworth's bid to become leader of the National Union of Teachers, quickly proved inadequate.

Several hundred delegates queued outside the hotel room, surrounded by sellers of Socialist Worker, Solidarity, Workers Liberty, Class Issue, Socialist Resistance and Weekly Worker to hear the first shot of the campaign to succeed Doug McAvoy as general secretary.

Mr Illingworth, a former NUT president and Nottingham primary headteacher, is portraying himself as the candidate closest to the classroom and has called the present leadership complacent and out of touch.

He looked a man to keep calm in any situation and coolly ignored a barefooted child who crawled under his table and then peeked out at the room through the tablecloth.

Bill Anderson of the Socialist Alliance clearly sees him as a friend. He said: "To have socialist candidate elected to the NUT would be earth shattering in terms of the trade union movement.

"Not only would we become part of the awkward squad but the awkward squad would quickly become a power to be reckoned with."

Mr Illingworth thanked him for his "helpful and supportive" words.

His rival Steve Sinnott, NUT deputy general secretary, has more of a backroom role in the conference, with his campaigning confined to discreet networking during conference social functions.

He enjoyed a brief moment in the spotlight when he received acclaim from delegates for his role in securing the freedom of Dr Taye Walde Semeyat, a jailed Ethiopian teachers' leader.

John Bangs, the union's head of education, and the third contender, was heard on Radio 4's Today programme rather than on the conference circuit and he remained Mr McAvoy's right-hand man at press briefings. However, he said that he garnered support over the weekend.

As ever, Mr McAvoy had the last word. "What a relief it is to you all that I am still here to lead you and guide you," he teased. "It must give you all a sense of security."

Then as the laughter died away a slide of a newspaper cutting flashed up on the big screen behind the 64-year-old general secretary.

"Retirement at 70 is closer for the UK," read the headline.

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