Tony Blair yesterday failed to stave off an embarrassing showdown at Labour's autumn annual conference when trade union bosses and party members rounded on his controversial public-services reforms.
The GMB union, the third largest in the country, threatened to embark on a strategy of non-cooperation, voting against plans for public-private partnerships in health, education and transport, trying to block support for the national missile defence system, and opposing other policies.
The party described the GMB's stance as "eccentric", claiming it was out of step with the rest of the union movement. But, against a backdrop of anger that elements in the manifesto were drawn up without consultation, and hostility to some of the policies themselves, the Prime Minister was forced to appeal for unity. In a conciliatory speech to delegates at yesterday's National Policy Forum meeting at Labour's Millbank headquarters, he reportedly said: "We don't want a divided party."
Charles Clarke, the party chairman, said: "The fundamental point, and the Prime Minister made it in terms of any political party, was that there will be a large number of views about how we best meet our objectives."
He called for debate to be "conducted in a way which is respectful of all views and is not divisive in nature". In return, one delegate insisted that in future "dissent should not be seen as disloyalty".
The meeting of 175 party representatives, including MPs, councillors, party officials and trade unionists, called for a more open exchange of views on policy and for the views of party members to be taken seriously.
The warning from delegates was clear. One said: "I think there is a lot of unhappiness on all sorts of things. The number of people Tony Blair has managed to upset is amazing."