Trade unions defied Ed Miliband on Sunday by threatening to block his plan to recast their relationship with the Labour Party.
Paul Kenny, the leader of the GMB union who chairs the Trade Union and Labour Party Liaison Organisation, won huge applause at the Brighton conference when he attacked Mr Miliband’s plan for union members to “opt in” to supporting the party financially.
Mr Kenny warned: “The desire to expand party membership is a shared one, but let nobody be under any illusion that as collective organisations the removal or sale of our collective voice is not on the agenda.”
The Labour leader needs to win round at least some of the unions because they will enjoy half the voting power when a special Labour conference decides whether to back his reforms next March.
Mr Kenny dismissed the proposed change to affiliation fees as “irrelevant navel gazing about internal party structures which frankly the British public do not give a fig about.”
He launched a stinging attack on Blairites who support diluting Labour’s links with the unions. He said: “We are certainly not going to accept any advice on democracy and transparency from the people who brought us the ‘cash for honours’ scandals or whose activities are funded by cash from wealthy outsiders who refuse to give to the party but prefer to lay cuckoos in constituency Labour party nests.”
The GMB general secretary accused the Labour leadership of ignoring unions who raised real world issues affecting the public in favour of “dinner party babble.” He added: “The collective voices of millions of working people and their families, and a hundred years of shared history, will not be washed away or sold for an electoral gimmick.”
Lord (Ray) Collins, Labour’s former general secretary, who is reviewing the party’s union links, told the conference: “We should not fear change - we are a movement, not a monument. At various points in its history, the party has embarked on internal reforms that seemed impossible to achieve, yet once they were made, the changes were put into place and the party emerged stronger as a result."
He added: “We need to do that in a way which retains the constitutional, collective voice of those organisations. I am guided by Ed Miliband's words – ‘I want to mend the link, not end the link.’ This is about broadening and deepening the party's relationship with ordinary men and women in communities across the country.”