Mr Smith repudiated a newspaper attack by Mr Edmonds, defending the party's 'very vigorous and active' record in campaigning against the Government, and restating his determination to defy the unions by pushing ahead with the one-member, one-vote (Omov) changes for internal elections.
That prompted Mr Edmonds to protest, in a television interview: 'What a stupid way to split a party when we have the Government running before us.' He received strong support from John Prescott, a member of Labour's Shadow Cabinet, who said: 'The movement is sick to death of a minority attempting to impose its will on the majority without any consultation.'
In a barely concealed attack on his leader, he added: 'It's back to 'Back me, or sack me', and we've had enough of that in the past.'
The fermenting dispute began with an attack by Mr Edmonds, general secretary of the GMB general union, on the lack of frontbench punch. 'We seem to be holding back and waiting for the Tories to destroy themselves,' he said in a Sunday Mirror article. But Mr Smith told BBC radio that while he was far from complacent, Labour was 24 percentage points ahead of the Tories in the latest opinion poll.
Mr Edmonds then broadened his attack to embrace leadership proposals for Omov; strongly defended in a letter sent to all constituency parties yesterday by four Shadow Cabinet members - Robin Cook, Gordon Brown, Tony Blair, and David Blunkett - and Neil Kinnock, the former party leader.
The five signatories, all members of the national executive, said they were united behind plans to create an Omov system for the selection of parliamentary candidates. 'Why should the Labour Party not trust you with the choice of your candidate. It is you who do the work to get them elected,' the letter said.
Mr Edmonds, who opposes the plan to give unions' political levy-payers membership - and individual votes - on payment of a small 'top-up' subscription, said many union members would be insulted by the suggestion that they did not work to get candidates elected.
Mr Prescott said Mr Blair and Mr Cook had served with him on the committee reviewing union links, and he accused them of breaking an undertaking not to influence its outcome.
While Mr Edmonds was at pains to point out that he was not attacking Mr Smith, he is known to have become increasingly frustrated with his 'laid back' style of leadership. Speaking after the opening session of the GMB's annual congress in Portsmouth, Mr Edmonds damned Mr Smith with faint praise, saying: 'By and large his performances are extremely good.'
Mr Edmonds is also known to have become disenchanted with Gordon Brown, the shadow Chancellor, Ann Taylor, the education spokeswoman, and, to a lesser extent, David Blunkett, the health spokesman.
Today, Mr Smith's version of Omov is set to be overwhelmingly rejected by the annual conferences of the GMB general union and the National Union of Public Employees. Delegates at the National Communications Union conference are expected to follow suit. The Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union is the only major affiliate to back Mr Smith, who faces certain defeat unless a compromise is found.
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