Blair tells union the rules have changed

Party leader insists that transport workers' policy `armlock' is redundant, then hits the campaign trail
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The Independent Online

Labour Editor

In the most hard-hitting speech to a union conference since he became Labour leader, Tony Blair yesterday put the party's largest and most troublesome affiliate firmly in its place.

Mr Blair warned the Transport and General Workers' Union that it could no longer "have an armlock" on Labour and chastised its general secretary for issuing a controversial statement on the eve of his address.

Surprisingly the Labour leader was listened to appreciatively by the 700 delegates at the union's biennial conference in Blackpool who gave him a standing ovation for a speech which none of his predecessors would have dared deliver.

In direct reply to remarks made on Sunday by Bill Morris, leader of the union, in which he urged an end to the "helter-skelter" of party reform, Mr Blair made clear his commitment to constant change in the party's constitution. To the T&G general secretary's demand that Labour should commit itself to a pounds 4 national minimum wage, Mr Blair said that any attempt to impose on the party an "inflexible formula" for a national minimum wage would be "counter-productive".

In a particularly dismissive remark, he said: "Trade unions should do the job of trade unions. The Labour Party must do the job of government."

He went on: "There was a time when a large trade union would pass a policy and then it was assumed Labour would follow suit. Demands were made. Labour responded and negotiated. Those days are over.

"Trade unions will of course be listened to. So will employers. But neither will have an armlock on Labour or its policies. We seek to govern the whole nation. Persuasion is in. Demands are out."

The speech often took on the tone of a headmasterly lecture to an assembly of recalcitrant pupils. Mr Blair was speaking to some of the most unbending devotees of Old Labour in the trade union movement.

Replying to a statement issued by the union's executive on Sunday which argued that there was no need for a change in the way Labour formulated policies, he said: "Policy-making is changing and for good reasons." He called into question the pre-eminence of the party's policy-making conference. New national and regional forums would ensure that policy was developed in a "detailed, considered and non-confrontational way".

He said the party could no longer pretend that "a short debate on Monday morning" on monetary union or unemployment was sufficient. "It isn't. A serious party of government does not make policy in this way. The policy forum does not replace party conference. But it does help make its policies more rational, more considered, more reflective."

The Labour leader went on to more routine government-bashing and sketched out his vision of a future Labour government.

Mr Morris later put a diplomatic face on it and said the Labour leader deserved the warm reception he received. Only the north-western region of the union - which is known for its hard-left sympathies - refused to stand at the end of the address.