The battle over the leadership of the forthcoming academic super-union took a bitter turn this week as an anonymous circular attacking the politics of prospective general secretary Paul Mackney sparked outrage.
The circular reveals the first signs of a lingering cultural split between some members of the Association of University Teachers, which represents academic staff in traditional universities, and lecturers' union Natfhe, which is dominated by further education college lecturers and those in the post-1992 universities.
The document argues that if Mr Mackney, the Natfhe general secretary, wins the leadership election for the merged University and College Union next year, it will be "associated with every madcap cause you can think of" and will become "far removed from the best traditions of the AUT".
The AUT, whose general secretary Sally Hunt intends to stand against Mr Mackney, said this week that the union deplored the anonymous attack and stressed that it had not come from the AUT or from anyone officially associated with it.
The circular was passed to The Times Higher after being distributed to staff at Aston University.
It is headed: "It's your union, keep it that way." It goes on to claim:
"You may not know that one of the likely (leadership) candidates is: a former card-carrying Trotskyist; a supporter of extremism in the Middle East, a supporter of just about any left-wing cause you can imagine."
In a reference to Mr Mackney's recent heart attack, it says: "It is possible he won't run as he has been seriously ill in the last year."
It is understood that the mention of his support for Middle East "extremism" refers to his prominent role in the anti-Iraq War movement and the Palestinian solidarity movement, both of which famously earned him the description of "one of the key revolutionary socialist agitators in Britain" by Daily Mail columnist Melanie Phillips last year.
Mr Mackney this week made light of the circular. "As a number of ministers could testify, when I went to university in 1968 there were few social science students who didn't have Trotskyist leanings," he told The Times Higher .
"I have actually been a 'card-carrying' member of the Labour Party for more than 30 years, though. In line with AUT and Natfhe policy, I opposed this Government's invasion of Iraq, which was paid for - in part at least - from money intended for the expansion of higher education."
Cliff Snaith, secretary of Natfhe's London region, said he was "disgusted" by the "cowardly and anonymous criticism".
He said that references to Mr Mackney's health were "particularly vile", as he remains "centrally involved in all the very complex issues related to the merger".
Liz Lawrence, a member of Natfhe's national executive, said the circular demonstrated the need for rigid rules governing the leadership election next year. "This is not the sort of thing one would want to see," she said.
John Fletcher, president of Aston's AUT, said the branch had "no knowledge" of the circular and it was not authorised.
A national AUT spokesman said he "deplored" the material. He added:
"Members of both unions voted overwhelmingly for a new union to unite staff, and we are determined to focus on the things that matter to members rather than personalities and gossip."