Unions challenge Blair over Whitty

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The Independent Online
TONY BLAIR is heading for a row with the unions over the ousting of Larry Whitty from his post as general secretary of the Labour Party.

The discontent will surface next week when trade union leaders on the National Executive Committee will question the decision to shunt Mr Whitty into a European liaison job without consulting them.

Suspicion that the new leader wants to marginalise the unions, prompted by Mr Blair's post-election declaration that they 'have no special place' in the party, coincides with a coded attack on hard-line modernisers by Labour's chairman, David Blunkett. He will use his fraternal address to the Trades Union Congress in Blackpool tomorrow to reassert the importance of the link.

Some union leaders are also anxious that Mr Blair's favoured candidate for the general secretaryship, Tom Sawyer, a senior official of the public services union, Unison, could be 'shoed in' without a proper contest.

Critics of the high-level politicking will use a special meeting of the NEC a week tomorrow to praise Mr Whitty for his record in putting Labour's finances on an even keel - the party has pounds 4m in the bank - and overhauling its ramshackle organisation. Their praise will be meant as overt criticism of the party leader.

Mr Whitty, who has accepted the new post 'in principle', neverthless told staff in a personal message: 'In many ways I would regret leaving at this time, but it is a major new challenge for me.'

He will remain in charge until after the party conference next month, when the NEC will choose his successor.

John Monks, general secretary of the TUC, spelt out yesterday the terms of the relationship that the trade unions will want with Tony Blair if Labour wins the next election.

'What I expect is access, an opportunity to get fairness for British workers and unions, and a balance in the labour market, rather than the licence for bad employers to trample on workers which has been the hallmark of the Thatcher-Major years,' he said on the eve of his first full Congress as general secretary.