A Labour Party without its trade union links would be 'a party without roots', Bill Morris, general secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union, said. 'In the inevitable pursuit of the floating voter, don't let us throw away our bedrock support - among rank and file trade unionists. I resent it when people talk about trade unionists as 'the problem'. From where I sit we are more part of the solution.'
Next year the power of the trade union block vote is due to be cut from 87 per cent to 70 per cent of conference votes.
A working party to look at all aspects of Labour Party-union links has been set up; the leadership was anxious not to have it pre-empted by a series of motions before the conference yesterday on union influence in policy making, selection of candidates and internal elections.
Larry Whitty, general secretary of the party, said the aim of the review was to modernise the relationship, legitimise the role of the unions in the party in the minds of their members and the public, and to remove the possibility of abuse, which, he said, 'does, on occasions, exist'.
'But what we are not contemplating, and what we must not contemplate, is a separation between the party and the trade unions,' Mr Whitty said.
The post-election clamour to break the link, started by commentators and gurus within and outside the party, had started off a counter-reaction among some trade unionists. They were saying privately that if the party was so ashamed of the unions, why should they bother to stay?
Mr Whitty said the party needed unions, not just as providers and supporters, but in the central councils of the party. If it had not been for the stability brought by the unions the party could well have faced a split. In the early 1980s the unions saved the party from oblivion.
Psephological reasons for trying to drop the unions were 'dubious in the extreme', he told delegates. According to election polls, just 1 per cent of the electorate regarded the link as a reason for not voting Labour whereas trade union members were 10 per cent more likely to vote Labour.
Trade unions represented far more directly than any constituency party the aspirations of people who voted Labour. 'Without that influence within the party we would be just an elitist, paternalistic and a patronising version of the Liberal Democrats or a better sort of Tory,' Mr Whitty said. The union link was the most valuable asset the party ever had.
Rodney Bickerstaffe, general secretary of Nupe, the public employees union, said he was in favour of more democracy but against any change that 'plays into the hands of the Tories and brings divorce in its wake'.
Delivering fraternal greetings to the conference as president of the TUC before the debate, Mr Bickerstaffe added: 'I know it's fashionable in the States to talk about children divorcing their parents, but this party isn't going to go that way.'
Simon Crine, of the Fabian Society, insisted the bottom line had to be the achievement of one member, one vote for leadership elections and candidate selection.
Labour lost the election by more than 2.5 million votes and he did not think 'one more heave' would be enough to win them over, even though they were people worried about their jobs, mortgages and rents. 'We need to present the kind of image to those people that will bring them back.'
There was some hissing when Paul Gallagher, of the electrical section of the AEEU, told delegates they either accepted the principle of one member, one vote or they did not. It was no good pushing the matter aside. 'You are either for each individual member of the Labour Party having a personal vote or you are against it.
'I reject the bureaucratic arguments of those who seek to delay it once again. In all too many cases they are nothing more than excuses aimed at preventing Labour Party members from taking power from small, self-serving cliques who even oppose the idea of this becoming a mass party.'