Harriet Harman pledged full Labour backing for a countrywide campaign of protest against public spending cuts as the trade unions put ministers on notice of national strikes to defend jobs.
In a series of angry speeches at the TUC conference, union leaders accused the Coalition Government of jeopardising services and hitting the worst-off hardest in next month's spending review. They overwhelmingly backed calls for a co-ordinated campaign of resistance, including industrial action, to moves that the unions warn will cost hundreds of thousands of jobs.
In a break with Labour's equivocal attitude in recent years to union action, Ms Harman, the party's acting leader, said it would stand behind their right to "campaign, demonstrate, protest" to defend jobs and services. She told the conference in Manchester: "We will not be silenced by the right wing characterising protest as undemocratic. Trade unionists have the democratic right to protest. We will not be deterred by suggestions that this is illegitimate – it is perfectly within the law."
The protest campaign will begin next month with a mass lobby of Parliament, while union leaders begin planning for strikes in the winter. The first flash-point will come in Birmingham, where the city council, which is run by a Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition, has sent out 26,000 letters to staff warning them that their terms and conditions of employment are about to be altered. The GMB union claimed they were being threatened with redundancy if they did not agree to the change and said it was calling a mass meeting of members on 23 September.
TUC delegates agreed to co-ordinate campaigns and industrial action, both locally and nationally, against the threatened cuts. A succession of union leaders said industrial action was inevitable as the spending squeeze by Chancellor George Osborne would lead to mass redundancies, pay freezes and cuts in pension entitlements.
Brendan Barber, TUC general secretary, accused the "demolition government" of being intent on a "political project" to cut public services. He said the planned cuts would make Britain a "darker, brutish, more frightening place".
Bob Crow, general secretary of the Rail Maritime and Transport union, who has called for civil disobedience against the cuts, drew loud applause from delegates when he said: "We lie down or stand up and fight." The only dissenting voice came from Jim McAuslan, general secretary of the British Association of Airline Pilots, who said the other leaders were setting the wrong tone for the campaign by attacking the rich.
Mr Osborne came under pressure in the Commons yesterday after suggesting in an interview last week that he planned to trim a further £4bn from welfare spending on top of the £11bn he had already announced in the Budget. He was forced to appear after Bob Russell, a Liberal Democrat critic of the coalition, called for an emergency statement.
He said it was "unethical" to blame the country's financial problems on welfare cheats and called for the Treasury to focus on tax avoidance.
Mr Osborne told MPs: "The current system is not protecting those who genuinely cannot work, nor is it helping those desperately looking for work to find a new job quickly."