Labour move to cut union power

Leadership wants to reduce the block vote as poll describes Blair's ideal fighter
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The Labour leadership is planning further cuts in the trade-union block vote at conference, giving it a minority say in party policy after the next election.

The controversial proposal, which is bound to aggravate union sensitivities ahead of a difficult Labour conference week in Blackpool, emerged from an Independent poll of candidates chosen to fight key winnable seats at the next general election.

The overwhelming majority of the candidates - 90 per cent - said they felt the unions' conference block vote should be reduced from the present 50-50 share with delegates.

But The Independent then discovered that they were echoing the "line" from internal briefings for candidates. Faithfully marching to the headquarters tune, the candidates exposed plans that have not been so firmly put in public before.

As the party leadership and the unions yesterday negotiated the agenda for the hard week ahead, much- predicted union rebellions were receding - although trouble could still loom on trade-union rights, railway renationalisation and child benefit.

Where unions have resisted Tony Blair's line, the leader's emissaries have managed to fudge the sensitive issues. Union leaders, for instance, refused to budge over their insistence that there should be effective rights from day one of employment.

But the actual phrase "day one" was excised from the resolution. Instead, the big unions agreed that protection should be granted to workers "regardless of . . . length of service". But the unions' sensitivity about their link with the party is raw after hints, on the fringe of this month's TUC conference, that it could be severed completely.

Bill Morris of the Transport and General Workers' Union said yesterday that he would be "prepared to die" for the link with the party, "not just fight for it". Warnings also came from the right of the union movement with Ken Jackson, general secretary of the ultra-loyalist Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union, declaring that the relationship between party and affiliates was in the "correct balance", and warning against careless talk.

"The Labour Party is our party too," he said, "we gave birth to it. Hundreds of thousands of ordinary trade unionists like those in the AEEU stood by it during the dark and difficult days."

John Prescott, Labour's deputy leader, told BBC television's On the Record that the union link was guaranteed by the party constitution. But he then added: "That doesn't mean it stays the same." Asked whether there would a further cut in the block vote - already sliced back from 90 per cent, to 70 per cent, to the present 50 per cent - Mr Prescott said: "I don't think it's a static situation. It isn't in concrete."

The latest official policy statement on the matter, from 1993, says that once individual party membership exceeded 300,000, as it now does, the balance of conference power should be changed "until the figure of 50- 50 is reached".

There is no mention of further change, and the results of the Independent poll expose the first officially backed signal of change to come.

Forty-two of Labour's key candidates answered the telephone poll, representing almost half the 87 marginal seats Labour believes it must win to gain power.

Of those interviewed, 38 said the union vote should be curbed, three said it should not, and one said "possibly". Showing singular unanimity on the covert headquarters line, most said they wanted the process of greater democratisation, started under John Smith and accelerated under Tony Blair, to continue.

On another sensitive area that has been concentrating leadership and union minds in the run-up to this week's pre-election conference - the continued provision of the universal state pension - 83 per cent of the candidates said it should remain.

The discipline of the candidates also extended to a one-note song on the minimum wage, socialism, and proportional representation - with an overwhelming majority refusing to give a figure, backing democratic socialism, and backing the leader- ship line on a referendum for voting reform.

Mr Blair's leadership speech tomorrow was already being trailed in Blackpool last night. On the unions, it was said, he will argue that after 17 years' Tory confrontation, the world had to move on from the division between public and private, bosses and workers, to maximise the business potential of all the people.