Election '97: Union leader suggests Labour tried to gag him

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The Independent Online
The leader of one of Britain's biggest trade unions disclosed yesterday that he had come under pressure not to attend this week's Scottish TUC conference.

John Edmonds, general secretary of the GMB General union, did not name the source of the pressure but his clear implication was that it came from the circle around Tony Blair.

The Labour leadership has tried to distance itself from the centenary gathering of Scottish trade unionists in Glasgow, fearing that hardline demands on nationalisation and workers' rights would frighten the electorate and hand the Conservatives a propaganda gift.

Mr Edmonds' performance was just the sort New Labour had hoped to be spared. Speaking in support of a motion advocating full employment, a four-day week and collective ownership of industry, he was critical of Gordon Brown's determination to hold to public spending totals to the limits set by the present Government.

"The aspirations of the British people cannot be met through the narrow economic limits set by the Tory chancellor," he said. While Mr Edmonds welcomed the use of a windfall tax to invest in job creation, he went on: "I suspect pretty soon that a Labour government will also have to intervene directly to stimulate investment and require industries to train their staff."

More embarrassing for the Labour leadership than the views of a trade union leader described in the past as "a dinosaur" was Mr Edmonds' suggestion of an attempt to gag him.

"Some of us have not been doing much public speaking during the last few weeks. It was suggested to me that I might plead some other engagements rather than come to Glasgow," he said. When questioned later, Mr Edmonds did not deny that the suggestion came from the Labour leadership, or from its advisers.

There was some comfort for Labour when a call by the public service union Unison (Scotland) for a national minimum wage of 50 per cent of median male earnings was manoeuvred off the agenda.

The formula would have set a minimum of pounds 4.42 an hour, well above any figure that Mr Blair could approve.

Rodney Bickerstaffe, Unison's general secretary, said he was "disappointed" that the demand had been dropped from the agenda but it did not change the union's position, which would put its case to Labour's proposed Low Pay Commission.

The conference also slightly moderated a demand for the renationalisation of the railways. And it overwhelmingly rejected a call for the repeal of all Conservative anti-trade union legislation. A motion from the RMT rail union had called for the "complete renationalisation of the whole railway industry" within the first term of a Labour government. However, after lengthy backroom wrangling, the wording put to the conference simply called on a Labour government to "establish a clear timetable for the return of railway companies to public ownership".

The wording would allow Labour to concentrate on strengthening the existing regulatory framework without immediately committing vast sums of money to renationalisation. Existing passenger franchises could be allowed to run for their full contractual term.