Labour hopes of conference unity rise

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The Independent Online
Labour hopes of peace and unity breaking out at next week's Blackpool party conference were rising last night.

Over the last few days, Tony Blair has called in union officials in an attempt to persuade them to compromise over their backing for effective rights from "day one" of employment, for bigger state pensions and for the re-na tionalisation of the rail network. Unions have also been lined up against a plan by Shadow Chancellor Gordon Brown, to scrap child benefit for 16 to18-year olds.

Hard negotiations will take place today, when delegates and delegations get down to negotiations about the wording of resolutions; the arcane process of "compositing", or amalgamation of different motions.

One unexpected clash em- erging last night was over the demand of Jimmy Knapp, of the RMT transport union, for a pledged re-nationalisation of the railways. Labour's current commitment is for a "publicly owned and publicly accountable" railway system - a formula that deliberately falls short of outright re-nationalisation.

Another disagreement surfaced as the deputy leader, John Prescott, warns in a newspaper article published today that Tony Blair risks hitting "the buffers" unless he slows the pace of change within the party: "The more and more you pile on the change, the more and more people feel a little uneasy."

But one senior source said last night that on other fronts, like pensions and trade union rights, there was a more positive feeling on the week ahead. Fighting back strongly against the campaign for a restoration of the link between pensions upratings and earnings, Harriet Harman, Labour's social security spokeswoman, warned that a Labour government would not be able to afford the pounds 3.5bn that restoration would cost. Instead, the leadership will offer to target help at the 700,000 neediest pensioners.

The Labour leadership will also attempt to ensure than an emergency motion tabled by the Communication Workers' Union will get nowhere near the order paper. The proposition calls for the party to back the CWU in its dispute with the Royal Mail. It implicity criticises Labour for interfering in the conflict and calling for restrictions on public sector strikes. The union is to re-ballot members, with the CWU executive recommending a "yes" vote to more strikes in protest at management's productivity plans.

Roger Lyons, of the MSF manufacturing union, and John Edmonds of the GMB general union, co-sponsors of the employment rights motion, have rejected compromises suggested by the Labour leadership. He expects support from virtually every union affiliate which command half the votes at the conference. The motion, jointly tabled with the GMB general union, is at odds with the party, which is awaiting the result of litigation before pronouncing on the issue.

Court action taken under European law could give workers full rights after a year rather than the present two years.