The Labour Party in Blackpool: Smith to act on divisions over unions

Click to follow
Indy Politics
JOHN SMITH, the Labour leader, is to intervene personally in an attempt to sort out increasingly damaging divisions over party-union links.

Delegates last night voted to cut the block vote next year from 87 per cent of the conference votes to 70, giving the constituencies 30 per cent. But the freedom of the working party examining the union link to shift the balance further, to end the union vote in the leadership contest, and to allow only individual party members to vote in parliamentary selections, was still in the balance last night.

Constituency and union delegates demanded overnight card votes on resolutions that would keep the union vote in the selection of the leader and MPs, and require 'substantial' union representation at conference.

Senior party officials were hopeful the moves would be defeated, but the most passionate debate of the week saw many calls for no weakening in the link. Union leaders were yesterday still expressing widely divergent views on the future relationship. Five meetings of the working party have made little or no progress.

The Labour leader in the words of one source, will 'bang a few heads together' to try and ensure that the party adheres to a strict timetable for reform.

The only decision the review group has taken so far is to back yesterday's cut in the block vote, which had already been agreed in principle at last year's conference.

Some members of the group yesterday argued that it would be extremely difficult to draw up a report in time for its scheduled discussion by the party national executive on 16 December.

The GMB general union, for instance, is in favour of giving union levy payers a vote in parliamentary selections, but the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union is not.

Together the GMB, the AEEU, the Transport and General Workers' Union and the National Union of Public Employees will effectively decide the speed and nature of the reform. There is no support among unions for the complete abolition of the block vote - something some senior MPs favour. The TGWU's present policy is to keep it at 70 per cent and the AEEU is calling for a 31 per cent union vote, albeit with a free vote for delegates where there is no union policy.

Bill Jordan, president of the AEEU, said yesterday that the public did not like the sight of 'block-vote barons' descending on the Labour conference like 'latter-day flying pickets' waving placards that decided what was, and was not, going to be allowed.

Mr Smith will insist the review group sticks to its deadlines, so that the rule changes can be put to union conferences which start at Easter, allowing Labour to adopt them next year. The shape of the final solution will be a considerable test of Mr Smith's leadership and how far he can influence the so-called union barons.

Nigel Harris, the AEEU representative on the review group, said: 'I fear the momentum will be lost, in fact I'm bloody sure it will be. It's all going to end in a fudge.'

A meeting of the committee next Wednesday would have to get down to the 'nitty gritty of the block vote'.