Tony Blair's allies declared war on the "awkward squad" of trade union leaders yesterday in a move that reopened the debate about links between the Labour Party and its union founders.
After the large unions combined to inflict a conference defeat on the Government's plans for foundation hospitals, ministers and Blair aides accused them of behaving "like a cartel" and being out of touch with their members. The unions hit back last night, launching a campaign to "reclaim the party" at a fringe meeting in Bournemouth.
Labour officials say that an unprecedented degree of co-ordination between the "big four" - Unison, the Transport and General Workers (T&G), the GMB and Amicus - has dictated much of the agenda at this week's conference. They claim the unions have refused to take part in the traditional "horse trading" with party officials and ministers. The unions' hard line reflects their disenchantment with important areas of government policy, especially public services.
One minister said: "The gang of four have shown they want to return to a 1970s-style oppositionism. That is bound to have implications, and we will have to consider them."
Some Blair aides said the row would strengthen the case for the introduction of state funding of political parties, a move that could cut Labour's financial links with the unions. Mr Blair is expected to include the idea in the party's manifesto at the next general election, although it will be bitterly fought by many unions.
Some constituency party delegates also complained about "strong-arm tactics" by the unions to railroad the conference. A clear divide between the unions and constituency parties, which hold half the voting power at Labour's annual conference, emerged when the Government's health policy was defeated in a vote yesterday - 63 per cent of the constituency delegates backed the Government, while only 24 per cent of the unions did. But the unions won the vote by 56 per cent to 44 per cent. Ministers claimed they had "won the argument, even if we lost the vote".
Sue Rothwell, a delegate from the North West Durham Labour Party, said: "There appears to be one rule for the unions and one for the party."
Some union leaders are worried that the war between the unions and the Government will damage the party at the next election.
Roger Lyons, president of the TUC, said: "If we keep telling people that Labour is betraying working people, why will they come out and vote? I indict those union leaders who are giving that simplistic and untrue message. We must add to Labour's appeal, not detract from it."
Union leaders declared last night that they were in no mood to be lectured by New Labour.
Speaking at a fringe meeting under the banner "Putting Labour Back Into The Party", Dave Prentis, leader of the public service union Unison, said: "What we have proved this week is that solidarity is not an old-fashioned word. And this solidarity was between the unions, the constituencies and party members up and down the country. We have to make this notion fashionable again in the party so that people have confidence to speak about it.
"We want to make fashionable those notions like equity, unity and social justice. These are our words and we will take them back into the party so that when the election comes, solidarity is there so we can secure a third term."
Tony Woodley, general secretary of T&G, told the meeting that he welcomed Mr Blair's promise on Tuesday to listen to his critics in the labour movement but warned: "If he keeps listening to his present advisers, he will be like the captain of the Titanic, failing to take the advice of his officers that there is an iceberg ahead."
Mr Woodley described the fringe meeting, which was also addressed by Derek Simpson of Amicus and Kevin Curran of GMB, as an "historic turning point" for the party. "I do not want to pretend nothing has been achieved. The minimum wage, the qualified right to trade union recognition, more money for public services - they're all steps forwards. But they are not enough," he said.
He said the advance seemed to have ground to a halt. "I do not say this out of disloyalty. No one will work harder than I for a third Labour term - whatever the situation, or whoever is party leader."
In a later fringe meeting, Aslef and the firefighters' union aimed to establish a traditional Old Labour organisation within the party representing unions, MPs and constituency members.
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