"We are not in your pockets and you are not in ours," he told union leaders. But he was plainly annoyed that his visit to the conference coincided with the political embarrassment resulting from postal workers' decision to step up industrial action.
John Major was quick to capitalise on the division. Launching a regional campaign for votes in marginal seats in the West Country, he insisted that the unions wanted a Labour government because they will be given favours in return. "New conditions, new rights - a new strikers' charter. These will be dangerous for business and dangerous for Britain," he said.
Union leaders were already angry after David Blunkett, Labour's employment spokesman, set out proposals which would put arbitration at the centre of the strategy. These were denounced as "union-bashing".
Lew Adams, general secretary of the train drivers' union Aslef, claimed Labour was virtually "kicking the union movement in the teeth" - and said he could not accept the proposals.
Mr Blair said Mr Blunkett's proposals were no reason for dispute: "He is saying there is a problem. He is saying we can look at it together and find new and better ways of addressing it.
"The Tories will just make political points. Let them. We will address real problems where they exist. We are consulting. There is no question of rushing into legislation, and people should calm down so we can have a reasoned discussion of what is a serious issue."
In a speech to the TUC general council dinner, Mr Blair said the relationship between Labour and the unions had changed for the better. "It is on a more sensible and realistic footing. You make a case for your members, to which we listen in opposition and to which we will listen in government. But our job is to govern for the whole nation."
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