Party leaders are being accused of seeking to create "client states" in the trade union movement to push forward the modernisers' agenda of reform, and the internal conflict is spilling over into key union elections.
Party officials admitted last night that "further changes" in the trade union links with Labour were in hand - starting with the reduction of union votes at the policy-making conference to give them equal standing with those of the constituencies. "It may not happen this year, but it will happen at some point," said a party insider.
However, some influential Labour MPs are urging Tony Blair to rein in the zeal of his modernising enthusiasts, arguing that it risks a complete break with the unions. They still contribute the bulk of annual subscriptions and the general election war chest.
The war over links with Labour is currently being fought out in conditions of gritted-teeth privacy, but there are warnings that once the party is in power, open hostilities could break out over public sector pay, the statutory minimum wage and trade union law.
The conflict has surfaced at its most rancorous in the Transport & General Workers' Union, once the largest affiliate to the party but now committed to a steady reduction in its cash subscriptions to Labour. The tense power- play began nine months ago, when Jack Dromey, the man who wants to be top dog in the TGWU, discussed privately with Tony Blair whether he should go for the post of general secretary of the Labour Party.
Blair had already made up his mind that Tom Sawyer, the public service union boss, should succeed Larry Whitty, so he told the front-line hero of the virtually forgotten Grunwick film-processing workers' dispute of the late Sixties: "No. Stay where you are in Transport House. That's where we need you." Back-handed perhaps, but a tribute none the less to Dromey's loyalty and modernising zeal.
This is not the first time that "Ginger Jack" had placed himself at the services of Thigmoo - This Great Movement of Ours. Four years previously, he signalled his determination to run against the Communist Jack Adams as deputy general secretary of the TGWU. Then he withdrew. But under pressure, not least from Neil Kinnock, the Labour leader, he agreed to go back into the race. Derided as "the hokey-cokey man", who was in the fight one minute and out the next, he was hammered.
Dromey's history is of more than academic interest. Tony Blair has a vested interest in who runs his largest trade union affiliate. His outer office staff have been deeply unflattering about the present TGWU incumbent, Bill Morris, the only black union leader of serious consequence. Blair's aides have also sneered at Rodney Bickerstaffe, associate general secretary of Britain's biggest union, Unison.
The Blair entourage's lack of esteem for the union leaders would be unexceptional if it were not for the fact that both the transport workers and Unison are engaged in a life-or-death leadership struggle and the unions are sharply hostile to outside intervention.
Until a few days ago, it was inconceivable that Bill Morris could be unseated. Now, even his closest political associates are talking about a 60-40 margin of victory in next month's secret postal ballot, while his critics predict a Dromey win by 20,000 votes.
Unison will be voting for a new general secretary while Labour holds its annual conference at Blackpool in October. Bickerstaffe - criticised for not holding a ballot before his union's 700,000 block vote was cast against the rewrite of Clause IV a week ago - is front-runner to take over from the veteran Alan Jinkinson.
Labour movement insiders argue that if Morris is returned "Blair will be in trouble", because the TGWU will have backed traditionalist policies rather than the arch-moderniser Dromey.
The pretender to the throne insists: "I will forge a relationship of integrity, but always maintaining the union's independence. I will never deliver the TGWU on a plate to Tony. The union will remain proud, independent and occasionally awkward - and rightly so. We will remain a progressive, left-of- centre union. That is the natural home of the TGWU. I believe in the traditions of Frank Cousins and Jack Jones."
This will come as bad news to Mrs Dromey, rather better known as Harriet Harman MP, opposition front-bench spokesman on Employment and a leading moderniser in the Shadow Cabinet. She is charged with squaring the circle of party policy and union demands for repeal of the Conservative industrial relations law.
Mr Dromey argues: "Tony Blair will have to decide what she does in government. I will look after the interests of the union. She can look after the interests of the party."
The Bill Morris camp - which goes some way beyond the union itself - is unimpressed. One Morris activist said: "Blair has made it clear that he wants client states in the trade union movement.
"He would like a client leadership in the TGWU so he can push through further reform of the Labour-union link. We will not let him have it."Reuse content