Blair warns union split still on cards

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The Prime Minister's office yesterday refused to rule out a long- term break in the link between Labour and the trade unions.

In the wake of yesterday's report in The Independent that senior trade unionists loyal to Tony Blair were planning a campaign to end the link, a spokesman said that while there was a place for unions in a modern democracy - and the Labour Party - the Prime Minister would govern on behalf of the whole nation.

Asked whether there were long-term plans to end the link with the unions, the spokesman said the party's step-by-step modernisation was continuing, and nothing was planned beyond the current proposal, "Party into Power", which is to be considered by the Labour national executive tomorrow. But he said there were no plans to change the link "at the moment".

While some Cabinet ministers, MPs and party members would be outraged by any threat to the 79-year link, the momentum for change remains strong.

Schools minister Stephen Byers told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "Everybody recognises that the status quo is not an option and political parties to be successful have to change and have to develop and I think it would be foolish for people to say that the Labour Party, its constitution, its relationship with all sorts of bodies ... must always remain the same."

The authors of the document leaked on Sunday to The Independent put out a statement yesterday claiming they had never advocated breaking the links. There was no question of suggesting that annual affiliation fees paid by unions to the party should be abolished, they said.

However, one passage in the paper, originally intended for publication by the Fabian Society, says: "While unions should be able to contribute towards Labour - perhaps through a campaign fund - particularly at election time, they should be able to free up their political fund finances for their own campaigns and activities at other times." It also suggests that unions should look for ties with other parties.

Alan Johnson, a co-author, former joint general secretary of the Communication Workers' Union and now MP for Hull West and Hessle, said it had been decided last week that the paper should not be published and so a planned Fabian fringe meeting on the subject at October's Labour conference would no longer take place.

One senior union leader said that the party leadership had "leaned" on Mr Johnson and his co-author to scrap the project as unions were registering concern over "Party into Power", which proposed radical reforms to Labour decision-making.

Donald Macintyre, page 13