Blair pledges 'dignity' to the low paid

The TUC in Brighton: Labour leader warns delegates there will be no return to industrial unrest of Seventies
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Tony Blair yesterday swept aside union fears over new Labour, declaring that "nothing" would get in the way of his campaign to drive the Conservatives from power.

In his first speech to the TUC as Labour leader, Mr Blair began by lecturing delegates on the separate functions of unions and the party and ended in an impassioned cri de coeur about the futility of opposition.

Mr Blair made clear that unions were just one interest group among many. "We have an obligation to listen, as we do to the employers. You have the right to persuade, as they do. The decisions, however, rest with us. We will be the Government and we will govern for the whole nation, not any interest within it."

The Labour leader received a muted initial response, but delegates gave him a standing ovation in the wake of a passage of unscripted fervour towards the end of his address.

Delegates listened in silence, however, as he told them that reform of the Labour Party would continue. Neil Kinnock started it, John Smith took the process on, and he would continue the process.

In blunt terms he warned delegates that there would be no return to the endemic industrial unrest of the Seventies. "We are not going back to the old battles. I will say now that there's going to be no repeal of all Tory union laws. That is not what the country or your members want.

"Ballots before strikes are here to stay. No mass or flying pickets. All those ghosts of time past, they are exorcised. Leave them where they lie." Mr Blair registered surprise that his strictures on union militancy received polite applause from delegates.

The Labour leader also, however, emphasised his determination to introduce a national minimum wage. There was a strong argument for it in both economic and moral terms. Sensibly and flexibly introduced it would mean that employers could not undercut each other simply through low pay. That had been the disastrous consequence of compulsory competitive tendering, he said.

"Every person, no matter what their situation in life, should be entitled to some minimum dignity."

He said a future Labour government would consult on the best method of its implementation and with due regard to economic circumstances. Mr Blair intends to set up a low pay commission to advise a future Labour administration.

Employees should have a choice whether or not to join a union. A government under Mr Blair would also introduce a law to ensure that unions represented workers where a majority wanted it.

He rounded on the Conservatives for abandoning the responsibilities of power. "They have ceased to be a government at all. The Government has been shut down and in its place is a propaganda machine."

Yesterday's announcement that more schools would be encouraged to opt out was simply an attempt to embarrass Labour, he said.

Bill Morris, leader of the Transport and General Workers' Union, welcomed the speech in which the Labour leader had set out his convictions.

"If there was one missing ingredient it was any suggestion that we must improve the quality of the dialogue between the party and unions."

"John Edmonds, general secretary of the GMB general union, said that Mr Blair had shown the kind of passion and vitality required to lead the country.