Blair signals end of unions' hold

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Indy Politics

Labour Editor

Tony Blair yesterday signalled a decisive weakening of union power over Labour as he predicted party membership would overtake the Conservatives by the end of the year for the first time since the Second World War.

Mr Blair said Labour had recruited more than 100,000 members in the past 12 months and that "soon" the union vote at policy-making conferences would be cut to 50 per cent. It is the first time he has made reference to the imminence of such a decision.

Senior Labour sources yesterday forecast that the issue of union influence would be raised at this October's party conference and it would be the last at which unions would command 70 per cent of the vote.

In an hour-long speech at the GMB general union's annual conference in Brighton, Mr Blair said party membership now stood at 340,000, which is comfortably above the 300,000 "trigger level" at which the union vote was set to be reduced. Ostensibly, unions have accepted the principle that the higher the Labour membership - and the more "representative" it therefore became - the lower would be union input on policy.

After the Labour leader's address however, John Edmonds, general secretary of the GMB, the party's second-largest affiliate, indicated he was unimpressed with Mr Blair's message of permanent revolution in the relationship between the party and unions.

Mr Edmonds warned that Labour should "hesitate" before reducing the union vote below 50 per cent. "It's a federal party. It's a party of unions and it's a party of constituencies. I think we should think very carefully."

To sporadic applause the Labour leader told the 750 GMB delegates that he was elected on a platform of change and modernisation and there "never would be an end to that process". He did not want to see the party dominated by a group of London-based intellectuals, but people with "real work experience" should wield their influence over Labour by becoming party members.

"The old system - a party hierarchy plus trade union leaders, keeping at bay the enthusiasms of the acitivists - it won't work any more. And it wasn't actually very democratic."

Mr Blair said he had no intention of removing the key planks of trade union law introduced by successive Conservative governments since 1979, but a Labour administration would repeal legislation which outlawed the deduction of union subscriptions by employers from pay packets unless it was authorised by the individual workers every three years. That was "petty bureaucracy".

In a phrase which no Labour leader would have dared to use in front of a union audience until recently, he said unions should treat their members like "customers", as any other organisation providing a service.