Addressing firefighters at their annual conference, Mr Smith set out his vision of party democracy with a much reduced union input, but Ken Cameron, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, said later that the Labour leader might be 'backing himself into a corner'.
While offering ritual support for strong links betweeen the two wings of the Labour movement, Mr Smith told the FBU conference in Bridlington that there was a need to 'modernise' the democratic processes in the party.
Mr Cameron sat impassively as the Labour leader told the 250 delegates: 'The principle of one member, one vote (OMOV) extends the right to participate in our key decisions to the most important people in our party - the ordinary members upon whose support and commitment we vitally depend. They believe it should be the guiding principle of our party democracy and I think they are right.'
The FBU general secretary, recognised as the most prominent left-wing 'fixer' in the union movement, called for a summit between party leaders and senior union officials in an attempt to reach an 'accommodation' on the issue. 'It is not helpful for any side to impose its views on the other,' he said.
The Labour leader's dilemma is that any compromise will be seen as weakness, while a determination to stick to a purist version of OMOV would mean defeat at the hands of the union block vote at the annual party conference in September.
Mr Smith, the first Labour leader to speak at an FBU conference for 20 years, left the Spa Royal Hall refusing to elaborate on his speech.
As a part of a concerted campaign to change hearts and minds on the issue, he will also address delegates to both the Transport and General Workers' Union and Manufacturing Science Finance conferences.
Mr Smith and his allies seek to eliminate the 40 per cent union proportion of the electoral college for the leadership of the party and union input on local committees which select parliamentary candidates. The only large affiliate to support him so far is the right-wing led Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union.
Unions have agreed to reduce their 90 per cent share of the vote at party conferences to 70 per cent. But with the opposition of the largest affiliates such as the transport workers and the GMB general union, Mr Smith's opponents believe they can count on 40 per cent of the total conference vote without including smaller unions.
In a speech which was greeted with polite enthusiasm rather than rapture, the Labour leader received a warmer reception for his support for the FBU which on Thursday decided to hold a strike ballot in defence of its pay formula.
Mr Smith said it was disgraceful that incompetent ministers should make public-sector workers pay for the Government's economic mistakes by imposing a 1.5 per cent limit on wage increases.
'The Government is not entitled to tear up agreements which were voluntarily entered into, have been scrupulously observed and have been the sound basis for the rational determination of pay levels in a crucial public service,' he said.
John Prescott, Labour's transport spokesman, yesterday argued in favour of a register of trade unionists who are Labour supporters. It could be used in party elections on the basis of one member, one vote, he told Radio 4's The World at One. 'That is quite consistent, quite principled and shows we have the trade union involvement as an affiliated body in the elections of leader and deputy leader on the basis of one person, one vote.'Reuse content