Brown wins party approval to weaken power of unions

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Gordon Brown has staved off the threat of an embarrassing defeat at his first Labour conference as party leader by winning approval for reforms to weaken the power of the trade unions.

Labour's ruling National Executive Committee (NEC) agreed by 26 votes to four yesterday to back Mr Brown's proposals to change the system under which the Government has suffered a series of defeats on policy issues at the annual conference. In future, "contemporary " motions will not be voted on by the conference but referred to the party's national policy forum, that will discuss them away from the media spotlight.

The unions hold 50 per cent of the votes at the conference and, in recent years, have used their power to inflict a string of defeats for government policies, including its public service reforms. Although the conference votes had little impact on the Government, they produced damaging headlines about Labour divisions.

Union leaders had threatened to cast a shadow over Mr Brown's first conference as leader by defeating his reform package when the event opens in Bournemouth on Sunday. But after marathon talks with Brown aides, they have agreed to support his proposals, which are now expected be approved on Sunday.

The sweetener for the unions is that the new system will be reviewed after two years. That compromise means Mr Brown gets his way ahead of the general election but the unions have the right to reverse the change if they feel he is ignoring them and party members when the contemporary issues are discussed by the policy forum.

Paul Kenny, general secretary of the GMB union, said: "We have been asked to trust the Prime Minister. GMB will recommend that we try the new system for two years. If it does not work, agreed mechanisms will be in place to restore the current system on contemporary motions."

A Labour spokesman said: "This gives a strong indication that people want to back the new leader and give him a good first conference."

Mr Brown's allies also hailed the NEC's decision to back his plans to extend the "one member, one vote" reforms begun by his two predecessors, John Smith and Tony Blair. The proposed rule changes include a ballot of Labour's 200,000 members to approve the outline of the party's general election manifesto. The final wording will continue to be formally agreed by a joint meeting of the NEC and the Cabinet or Shadow Cabinet when Labour is in opposition.

The Prime Minister has been anxious to complete the move to a system of "one member, one vote" democracy in the Labour Party to end what the public see as arcane decision-making procedures. He believes that it would be harder to convince voters that he wants to create a "new politics" unless Labour modernises its rulebook.

Brownites insist that the package will give ordinary party members the "first say and the final say" in the programme on which Labour will fight elections.

But left-wingers have criticised the reform plans and voted against them at yesterday's NEC meeting. The proposals were floated by Mr Brown on the day that he became Labour leader in June and critics accused him of rushing through moves aimed at stamping out dissent in the party and turning the annual conference, the party's sovereign policy-making body, into a rally.

Union leaders, furious about the Government's tough stance on public sector pay, had dug in their heels and refused to bow to pressure from Brown allies in the margins of last week's TUC conference. Yesterday they backed off after winning the right to reverse the reforms.