While six of the biggest unions opposed to one member, one vote (OMOV) for party elections pledged to campaign against it, sources close to Mr Smith dismissed recent suggestions that he might accept a compromise, and underlined the Labour leader's determination to stick to his original proposal.
Aides insisted Mr Smith's stated willingness to consider the idea of registered union 'supporters' having a say referred to a future possibility; it could become part of OMOV if it proved to be workable.
But unless the Labour leader can swing big unions like his own, the GMB, behind him, he will be defeated by the union block vote at the annual conference in October.
The party's largest union affiliates - wielding nearly 40 per cent of the vote at policy-making conferences - yesterday registered their determination to oppose the simple OMOV system that would abolish union input into party elections.
A damaging row is now in prospect between the two wings of the movement at a time when many party supporters believe it should concentrate its fire on a weakened government.
The first element of the unions' campaign will be channelled through the fund-raising organisation, Trade Unions for Labour, which meets today. A pamphlet will be published promoting the benefits of strong union links with the party, but by implication it will be an attack on Mr Smith's position.
Officials of six unions - the Transport & General, the GMB general union, the National Union of Public Employees (Nupe), Manufacturing Science Finance (MSF), the RMT transport union and the Union of Communication Workers - discussed their stategy for two hours at TUC House in a meeting originally meant to be secret. The only major affiliate not to be invited to the discussion was the Amaglamated Engineering and Electrical Union, which is a champion of OMOV.
After the meeting, Roger Lyons, general secretary of MSF, said the unions should not become Labour's 'missing link', but they were worried that differences of opinion might turn into a confrontation. 'We feel it should be possible to develop links while developing a consensus.' He said that while the six unions present at the meeting opposed a simple OMOV system, there was no agreement on an alternative for presentation to Labour's annual policy-making conference in October.
'If we do not have some degree of liasion between the unions and their conferences, we could end up with all the proposals being voted down.'
The Transport & General, for instance, is implacably opposed to OMOV, but has not declared its support for any other system. Leaders of GMB, which convened yesterday's meeting, and Nupe have suggested a system in which union members who pay the political levy could register as Labour 'supporters' and wield a vote in the selection of MPs. Both the TGWU and MSF oppose that option.
Most unions yesterday agreed that the electoral college which chooses the Labour leader should be changed. At the moment unions command 40 per cent of the college, but not all of them give their members a vote.
The waters over the equally vexed issue of a new system for electing MPs were also looking muddy yesterday. Signs from a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party were that there has been no rush of converts to the cause of voting reform since the Plant working party backed a new 'supplementary vote' (SV) system last month.
John Denham, the pro-change MP for Southampton Itchen, said the reform was essential to reflect Labour's support in the south. 'Thousands of people who would have voted Labour in Newbury didn't,' he said. But a majority of Labour MPs are still believed to oppose any change.Reuse content