Blair tried to 'buy off' Edmonds with peerage in 1997

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Indy Politics

John Edmonds, one of New Labour's most vociferous critics, was offered a peerage by Tony Blair in what colleagues of the union leader say was an attempt to "buy him off".

John Edmonds, one of New Labour's most vociferous critics, was offered a peerage by Tony Blair in what colleagues of the union leader say was an attempt to "buy him off".

Mr Edmonds revealed yesterday he had rejected the seat in the House of Lords, said to have been an attempt to silence his invective against party policy. In his valedictory address to the annual conference of the GMB general union, Mr Edmonds, who is retiring as general secretary, said: "I have turned down a peerage once and, if offered, I would turn it down again."

Mr Edmonds told delegates at the Winter Gardens in Blackpool: "As trades unionists we know there is more nobility in representing working people than you will ever find under the ermine in the House of Lords."

Senior GMB officials later disclosed he had been offered the peerage in 1997 just after Labour came to power.

At the same time, he was offered the chairmanship of the Health and Safety Executive.

Mr Edmonds, 59, had opposed Mr Blair's candidature for the party leadership. Senior officials said yesterday they believed the offer of the peerage was "an obvious and blatant attempt" to sideline the trade unionist. Downing Street said it would not comment on matters to do with the honours system.

In his speech, Mr Edmonds tore into the Government, which he said felt more comfortable with the agenda of employers than with that of the union movement. He suggested ministers' pay should vary by region. "If it is right to pay ordinary people lower wages because they live in a poor area with high unemployment, surely the same logic should apply to MPs." Mr Edmonds said Shaun Woodward, the ex-Tory who now sits as a Labour MP for St Helens South, should apply for a pay cut. He should be followed by David Blunkett, Home Secretary and MP from Sheffield, Jack Straw, Foreign Secretary and MP for Blackburn and the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, who represents Hull.

Kevin Curran, who is replacing Mr Edmonds as general secretary of the union, said the opinions espoused by the Prime Minister were "alien" to the labour movement, adding: "The party hasn't changed, the party in Parliament hasn't changed, but Downing Street has chosen a path alien to most party members." Ahead of his keynote address today, Mr Curran warned the Labour leadership, who will rely heavily on unions to finance their next general election campaign: "Neglect us at your peril."

Elsewhere in the labour movement, leaders of Unison, the largest public-service union, registered deep concern that the 2,000 delegates to their annual conference next week in Brighton would vote in effect to disaffiliate from Labour. Senior Unison officials warned that motions tabled by the ultra-left could be passed by disenchanted delegates. If the left wingers are successful the public service union could end up financing non-Labour election candidates. Unison officers argue that such a policy would infringe Labour's constitution and result in expulsion.

Other union sources contend that the party may have "pulled the rug" from under Unison's leadership by accepting the decision of the train drivers' union, Aslef, to back Ken Livingstone's campaign to remain the Mayor of London in next year's election. Last Friday the executive of the RMT rail union also endorsed Mr Livingstone, who was forced out of the party.One piece of good news for the Government expected later this week is the acceptance by an emergency conference of the Fire Brigades Union of the latest offer to settle its nine-month-old dispute.

¿ Unions are spending an estimated £3m in internal campaigns to persuade members to keep their political funds. Amicus, Labour's largest affiliate, will today disclose that it has spent £500,000 to secure a vote in favour of retaining links with the party. About 71 per cent of contributors to the Amicus fund voted "yes", but turnout was only 27 per cent.