In his presidential address on the first day of the TUC in Blackpool, Mr Knapp, who is general secretary of the RMT transport union, said the only way to end the dispute was through negotiation. The Labour leader's backing for the dispute will be questioned tonight when he attends a dinner hosted by the general council of the TUC and presided over by Mr Knapp.
It is understood that those close to Mr Blair are uneasy about the political impact of the industrial action during the political conference season. A commitment by the union to arbitration would have weakened Conservative Party attempts to make capital out of the strike, it was thought.
At a rally in Blackpool last night John Prescott, deputy leader of the Labour Party, accused the Government of deliberately prolonging the strike until the Conservative conference so that it could use the union as 'whipping boys'. Mr Prescott said the strikers had 'an absolutely just case', but he fought shy of an outright endorsement of the industrial action.
While both union and management have rejected the arbitration proposal, the Blair initiative is a measure of his concern. His wish that a settlement should be brokered is in contrast to the comments made at TUC fringe meetings held yesterday by Labour politicians on the left of the party.
Mr Knapp told delegates in his inaugural speech that he was convinced of the justice of the signal workers' case. Without mentioning the Labour Party's confidential arbitration proposals, he said: 'We will fight on until we get a fair and acceptable negotiated settlement.'
Later he boycotted a dinner with senior British Rail managers visiting the conference after learning that they were to provide former signal box staff to help to break the 24-hour strike on Thursday.
A spokesman said that BR would be providing a 'small number' of their employees so that the proportion of services run on a strike day would rise above the 50 per cent level. BR has conceded that the numbers involved would be counted in 'tens rather than hundreds' and various periods of training would be required.
Railtrack said mainline services in the West Country would operate normally on Thursday with 43 trains 'defying the strike' from London and Bristol.
Conference reports, page 4
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