Labour leaders split over unions

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Tony Blair and his deputy, John Prescott, have given sharply different visions of the role of the trade unions - on the eve of this week's Trades Union Congress in Blackpool.

In an article in today's Independent on Sunday Mr Prescott makes a powerful defence of trade unions and of Labour's commitment to implement the European Social Chapter protecting workers' rights.

Labour's deputy leader argues that the union movement is "as relevant now as when I joined it" in 1954. He also promises "a new approach which recognises that employees have a stake in their work, that their safety must be respected, that minimum standards can improve work relations".

But addressing a public meeting of his constituency party in Sedgefield, County Durham, Mr Blair reacted strongly to an activist who argued that the balance of power in industry had swung too far away from unions in favour of the employers.

The Labour leader said: "I don't regard it as a balance between unions and employers. I regard it as a matter that all individuals at the workplace, whether in a union or not, should have certain minimum standards."

Mr Prescott's article will be seen as the beginning of a rearguard action among traditionalists after a concerted attempt by Labour modernisers to woo business. That has coincided with a softening of the party's rhetoric over worker protection rights enshrined in the European Social Chapter. In a marked difference of tone from Mr Blair's comments last week at a business conference, Mr Prescott said that "far too often in the Britain of the 1990s, good employers are undermined by the bad".

He added: "The most successful businesses are those which harness the motivation and potential of a valued, skilled and fairly-rewarded workforce. That's why Labour will sign the European Social Chapter on minimum standards at work. That means measures to protect parents from being sacked for looking after their newborn children, and large companies consulting employee representatives - things most good companies do already."

The Social Chapter includes directives on workers councils and parental leave. But last week Mr Blair told business leaders that Labour would "rigorously examine each proposal to make sure it does not damage our competitiveness".

In Sedgefield yesterday Mr Blair confirmed his commitment to the statutory national minimum wage ahead of an expected row over the issue at the TUC in Blackpool. The Labour leader said there had to be "some floor on wages" otherwise unscrupulous employers would simply undercut each other and pass on the bill to the taxpayer, who is now paying pounds 2.5bn a year in benefits to those in work who are not paid a living wage.

However, he added: "It is not a question of giving unions back more power, but everybody irrespective of whether they are in unions, should be entitled to minimum standards at work."

Mr Blair declared yesterday that the general election campaign "has now begun" and pledged that Labour "is not going to descend into the gutter". Recalling John Major's words that "being negative can be an addictive drug", the Labour leader accused the Government of running "the most negative and destructive advertising campaign that Britain had ever seen. Lie after lie after lie. Violent images designed to frighten. A campaign in the long lineage of ugly and corroding advertising."

John Prescott, page 6