Setback for Blair as T&G lines up to keep Clause IV

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The campaign by Tony Blair to reform Labour's constitution sustained a considerable blow yesterday at the hands of the party's largest affiliate.

In defiance of the Labour leader, the 30-strong executive of the Transport and General Workers' Union declared its support for the historic Clause IV, which calls for the "common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange".

The union's leadership has left the way open for an addition to the clause but is insisting that the original wording should remain. A special meeting of the executive on 6 April will assess the replacement for the clause, due to be revealed next week.

A consultation exercise among the union's branches showed "a clear majority" in favour of retention of the clause, but most also called for an addition to it. Union officials said last night that a range of addenda were suggested. Only a minority wanted a completely new statement of the party's aims and values, officials said.

Bill Morris, general secretary of the T&G, said his members had sent a clear message they wanted Clause IV retained. "This reflects the strength of feeling within the union on the principle of public ownership," he said. The union's delegation, which will command more than 14 per cent of the vote at the special conference on Clause IV on 29 April, will have the final say on the T&G position. While delegates are constitutionally able to ignore the executive, they are unlikely to do so.

While Mr Blair might suffer a reverse at the Scottish Labour Party conference later this week, the national union vote is likely to swing in his favour.

The second biggest affiliate, the GMB general union, in common with a number of other unions, is backing a rewrite provided there is a commitment to "full employment".

The Unison public sector union, the third largest, is backing the principle of change provided it contains strong support for public services. The leadership of the Unison fund affiliated to Labour - the union also has a non-affiliated section -will meet when the new official version is known.

The Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union - the fourth biggest affiliate - is one of the strongest proponents of reform. The leaders of the fifth and sixth largest - the shop workers and the MSF white collar union - are also hoping to back Mr Blair.

Labour leaders put a brave face on yesterday's setback at the hands of the T&G executive.Gordon Brown, the shadow Chancellor, said Mr Blair would win the vote to reform Clause IV at the special conference on 29 April.

Mr Brown also gave assurances that the leadership would win the vote next weekend at the Scottish Labour Party conference in Inverness.

"I have found many constituencies right across Scotland who will support the case for change, and I am confident that whatever the votes on any one day, on 29 April the proposal to change Clause IV will command majority support," he said.

He rejected Mr Morris's claim that trade union members wanted to retain Clause IV to prevent further excesses in pay and bonuses by privatised utility bosses. "The best way to achieve that is to elect a Labour government," Mr Brown said.

Malcolm Bruce, the Liberal Democrat spokesman on Treasury affairs, said the vote was a "big setback for Tony Blair".

He added: "He'll still bulldoze his reforms through a Labour Party desperate for power at any price, but how can Labour claim to be a national party when it has to refer all its decisions to a small group of union bosses?"