First shot fired in Labour battle: Transport workers' chief defends union role in leadership election

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JOHN SMITH'S vision of a Labour Party with a lower profile for unions came under fire last night from the leader of the party's biggest affiliate.

In a speech to the Tribune group Bill Morris, general secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union, defended union input in the election of the party leadership and the selection of MPs.

Mr Morris called for payers of the political levy in unions to have a say in who represents Labour as part of an 'open and transparent constitutional link between the party and its affiliated organisations'.

His comments at the second annual Tribune dinner lecture constitute the first shot in a battle over Labour Party democracy to be fought during the coming union conference season.

Mr Smith unequivocally endorsed the principle of one member, one vote for the first time at the February meeting of the party executive. Mr Morris asked last night: 'Can Labour ask people to give their collective support through the payment of the political levy and then tell them they cannot contribute to developing party policy? Or can they be debarred from expressing a view as to who should lead the party or represent it in Parliament?'

Mr Morris said the movement did not want the 'nudge-nudge, wink-wink' relationship which existed between the Conservatives and big business. 'If Labour cuts itself adrift from the unions, it cuts itself adrift from its most solid base of support.'

Mr Smith wants the party leadership election split 50-50 between full members of the party and MPs, including European MPs. This would end unions' 40 per cent input in the existing electoral college. Under the plan union votes on the selection of MPs would also end. A suggestion by some unions that 'registered supporters' among local trade unionists be allowed a say, was rejected by Mr Smith.

Mr Morris did not want last night's speech interpreted as a challenge to the Labour leader, more as an expression of the union's concern about the way the debate over the links was progressing. The clash of opinions between the TGWU and Mr Smith, however, is unavoidable.

The sixth largest affiliate, the shopworkers' union Usdaw, endorsed Mr Smith's views on the selection of MPs, but insisted that there should still be a union vote in the election of the leader.