Blair faces revolt on minimum wage

BARRIE CLEMENT

and DONALD MACINTYRE

Next week's Labour Party conference is expected to call for a national minimum wage of pounds 4.15 an hour despite intensive private lobbying by the Labour leadership.

The decision would mean that the party is going much further than the TUC conference earlier this month which was persuaded to delete all mention of a figure.

But delegates will also endorse, by a much wider margin, the establishment of a low pay commission under a Labour government - the policy favoured by the party leadership.

The commission, with the involvement of employers, would be set up to advise ministers on the level of the minimum rate.

Assuming that it is passed, Mr Blair is expected effectively to ignore the resolution calling for pounds 4.15. An attempt at mollifying unions will be made through a statement from the party executive which will call for the establishment of a working party on the commission immediately after the conference.

Senior party figures are still hoping the statement will persuade the big unions to vote against the figure though, union champions of the pounds 4.15 figure said.

The figure of pounds 4.15 is based on TUC policy which calls for the minimum wage to be set at half of male median earnings. Congress House calculates that the formula could produce a series of rates between pounds 3.60 to pounds 4.15. Based on the latest New Earnings Survey, published yesterday, the pounds 4.15 figure would be uprated to pounds 4.26.

A briefing paper under the name of Harriet Harman, Labour's employment spokeswoman, argues that the TUC's own formula yields a rate of no more than pounds 3.33 an hour.

Circulation of the document has enraged union leaders and will make them more determined to stick out for pounds 4.15.

The issue of the minimum wage - which Labour leaders are still hoping to make last-minute efforts to resolve without a full scale row, is one of several on which the leadership could face difficult debates.

They include education - in which the leadership's refusal to countenance the all-out abolition of the grant-maintained schools could come under attack - and Tony Blair's renewed commitment to a referendum on electoral reform.

But Mr Blair's determination to use the conference to unite the party will be underpinned today by new ICM opinion poll for the Guardian which shows 42 per cent of all voters and 57 per cent of Labour supporters are more likely to vote Labour because of the party's "move towards the centre".

Mr Blair's stance is judged by 41 per cent of all voters as making them "more likely" to vote Labour. Only 15 per cent - and 12 per cent of Labour supporters - say it would make them less likely to vote for the party.

At least as striking is the fact that 56 per cent of all voters would be more likely to vote Labour if it promised to change the constitution, introduce a Bill of Rights and a Freedom of Information Act and reform the House of Lords. Only 21 per cent say it would make no difference.

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