Backlash grows on the shop floor

BY BARRIE CLEMENT

Labour Editor

Any idea that Tony Blair's constitutional reforms would attract a ringing endorsement from the party have been dashed.

Such a prediction by senior Labour figures, was severely undermined by Unison, the public service union on Thursday when it voted narrowly to retain the pro-nationalisation Clause IV.

There is little doubt that Mr Blair is experiencing a growing backlash against his vision of New Labour among active trade unionists. The more union activists hear about Tony Blair's politics, the less they like them.

Mr Blair will need as much backing from unions as possible because they will command 70 per cent of the vote at the special constitutional conference on 29 April. The bigger the vote in favour of his new "mission statement" for Labour, the greater will be his power and authority over the party and the less will be the scope for Conservative disdain.

In the wake of the Unison decision the new version of Clause IV is unlikely to attract more than 60 per cent support and it could be considerably less. Some left-wingers argue that the new constitution could now be voted down.

The initial view among Mr Blair's less committed opponents was that he should be backed, albeit reluctantly, in order to secure a Labour government.

There is now a feeling that Mr Blair and his senior colleagues may be going a touch too far.

It was the Labour leader's perceived equivocation over a national minimum wage which concerned delegates, many of whose members are low paid. His keenness to "see the Treasury books", before setting a rate was seen by some as the first step towards an abandonment of the principle.

A statement by David Blunkett, the party's spokesman on education, that ineffective teachers would be dismissed under a Labour government, added little to unions' enthusiasm for New Labour.

The pro-Clause IV lobby has gained considerable confidence from Unison's narrow 55 to 47 vote. Some members believe there is a chance of persuading MSF, the white collar union, to take the traditionalist line. Activists in the GMB general union may also be persuaded to oppose the Labour leader. MSF will wield around 5 per cent of the vote at the special conference, while the GMB, the second biggest affiliate, will command 12 per cent.

Unless there is a last minute conversion, the Transport and General Workers' Union, with 14 per cent of the vote, is likely to oppose the reforms.

Both sides will now be attempting to maximise support among smaller unions, with 2 per cent of the vote and less, and among the constituencies, with a 30 per cent share.

The Unison decision has guaranteed a fortnight of backstage battles in the labour movement.

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