Ed Miliband last night called for a truce in the damaging war of words between Blairites and trade unions in his party amid fears the battle could put middle-class voters off Labour.
The Labour leader rejected union demands for the expulsion of Progress, a modernising group. He told The Independent: "I believe in an open and inclusive party, reaching out to people, not for pushing people away. That certainly does not mean excluding or proscribing organisations like Progress which contribute to the debate of ideas in the Labour Party." The GMB union has led calls for a ban on Progress, a "New Labour" group trying to keep the Blairites' flame alive. It backed David Miliband for the Labour leadership in 2010, when the unions ensured he was pipped at the post by his younger brother.
Allies of Ed Miliband are worried the row is a needless distraction at a time when voters are taking another look at his party as they lose faith in the Coalition Government. They dismissed as "ridiculous" union claims that the group is a "party within a party" like Militant Tendency, the Trotskyite movement which infiltrated Labour in the 1980s.
The unions' move is surprising since Progress is hardly calling the shots under Ed Miliband's leadership. This week, it secured only two of the 19 places for party members in elections to Labour's national executive committee (NEC).
Some Labour insiders believe the unions' demand reflects their leaders' fears that the party leader will not cave in to their policy demands. "Some unions can't wait to cry betrayal," one shadow cabinet member said. "It's not a battle about Progress; it is really about the battle for Ed's ear."
Union officials insist there is no co-ordinated push for a ban. They appear to be softening their language, saying merely that Progress should be "monitored".
But senior Labour figures are worried that unions such as GMB, Unite and Unison are playing a dangerous game. They recall that a small section of the Labour conference booed when Ed Miliband name-checked Tony Blair in his speech last September. "It's a pretty bad signal to send to the public about a guy who won three elections," said one Labour aide.
Yesterday the boot was on other foot as modernisers accused Unite of launching an attempt to take over constituency Labour parties by recruiting 5,000 union members to the party by December. A leaked copy of Unite's political strategy said: "This is emphatically not just a recruitment offensive to benefit the Labour party with passive financial contributors – it is vital if we are to impact on constituency parties". It describes how Unite will act as a bloc inside local parties and try to secure as many parliamentary candidates as possible – another potential battle with Progress.
Jamie Reed, a shadow Health minister and a GMB-sponsored MP, plans to join Progress to show his displeasure at his union's campaign. He said: "There are some on the left who seek an impossible ideological purity. This notion causes its adherents to seek out the 'betrayals' of others who do not follow precisely the same ideological line." Phil Wilson, Mr Blair's successor as MP for Sedgefield, said: "I would hate to see the Labour Party fall into factionalism."
War Of Words: The battle for Ed Miliband's ear
What they want: To keep the far-left agenda of nationalisation, extra trade union rights and opposition to spending cuts.
Leading players: John McDonnell, Diane Abbott, Jeremy Corbyn.
What they want: To defend the interests of Britain's 6 million trade unionists, protect employment rights.
Leading players: Dave Prentis (Unison), Paul Kenny (GMB), Len McCluskey (Unite).
What they want: To champion policies of the "progressive left". Wants Miliband to build on his promise to tackle "predatory capitalism".
Leading players: Neal Lawson (chair), Jon Cruddas, pictured, Lisa Nandy.
What they want: To ensure maximum influence for the Labour’s power couple – and position one of them as the next leader.
Leading players: Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper, Tom Watson, Michael Dugher.
What they want: A focus on "faith, family and flag"; the concerns of working-class supporters, such as immigration, crime and community activism.
Leading players: Jon Cruddas (now in charge of Miliband's policy review), Chuka Ummuna, pictured, Lord Glasman.
In the Black Labour
What they want: To rebuild Labour's economic credibility by being more explicit about the need for spending cuts.
Leading players: Former Labour advisers, including Hopi Sen and Graeme Cooke.
What they want: To continue New Labour's modernising agenda by championing economic reform and decentralising power.
Leading players: Douglas Alexander, Ivan Lewis, John Woodcock, Alan Milburn.
What they want: To keep the Blairite flame burning by promoting "radical and progressive policies for the 21st century".
Leading players: Lord Mandelson, Stephen Twigg, Liam Byrne, Lord Adonis.