It fills me with despair. That ugliest of words, 'scabs', is stalking the headlines once again.

With it is ushered back into our nice, middle class, New Labour world a bitter quagmire of hate, suspicion, intolerance and greed of the kind that brought down the last Labour Government.

And all the while, in the wings, whooping and jibbering with malevolent glee, the ugly spectre of a new Conservative Government hovers, just waiting for the chance to seize power once more and usher in a fresh age of meanness of spirit.

Strikes are terrible things - terrible not only because of the inconvenience or harm they threaten to ordinary members of the public (in the event of a firefighters' strike, for example, that could be considerable) and to the fabric of society generally, but also because of the damage they do to those taking part.

Strikes can so easily become divisive. There will almost always be those among the workforce who support them, and those who - for whatever reason - don't. Strikes, by their nature, are far more effective if the workforce can present a united front: and so the pressure on those who are reluctant to down tools grows.

Very easily, that pressure can build into outright intimidation and bullying: and if that still doesn't work, you get the ugly divisions and the shrill screams of 'scab' as workers defy the strike and cross the picket lines.

I am a union member myself, because I believe in the principle of a counterbalance to the power of employers to decide their workers' lives. Trades unionism is a fundamental part of any democratic system - one of the many checks and balances built in that hopefully keeps it on track.

But when I see a member of my own union - the National Union of Journalists - using that words 'scabs', as the secretary of the York branch of the NUJ did in a letter to the Evening Press about the Arriva trains dispute this week, I feel sickened.

It is a word filled with hate and contempt. And it signals not how united a workforce is, but how divided.

It is a democratic right of a trades union to call for strike action as a last resort. And it is a democratic right of every employee to decide for themselves whether they support that action.

It is a decision, often, that is not made easily. But if someone - probably someone you have worked alongside for years - decides they do not support a strike, that decision should be respected. Intimidation by mob rule is not a democratic response.

If the strike-breaker is a union member going against a majority vote, then he or she should perhaps do the honourable thing and resign from the union. The union, I would go so far as to say, should even retain the right to eject such a member.

But not to harass, intimidate or demonise them. Then it becomes worker against worker, hate and intolerance parading under the flag of democratic freedoms. It is ignorant armies clashing by night, and the Tories rubbing their hands with glee on the sidelines.

IN a recent review a colleague wrote about going 'up' to London to see a show. Surely, I protested, that should be 'down'. No, he insisted: London is the capital and you always go 'up' to London no matter where you are, geographically speaking.

Sounds like a lot of arrant nonsense, to me: and an abuse of the English language designed to reinforce Londoners' parochial belief in their superiority.

To me, London remains 'down' from York - in every sense of the word.

And I speak as one who lived there once.

Updated: 11:19 Thursday, October 31, 2002