Triumphant Blair in plea to Clause IV die-hards

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Indy Politics

Labour Editor

Tony Blair last night urged Britain's two biggest unions to rethink their opposition to his reforms of the Labour constitution, as it became clear that victory was assured in his campaign to change the party.

Without mentioning the organisations by name, Mr Blair called on the Transport and General Workers' Union and the public service union Unison to back his new Clause IV which abandons Labour's commitment to wholesale nationalisation.

His appeal to the party's "big battalions" came in a speech to the annual conference of Usdaw, the shopworkers' union, in Blackpool, which later registered its overwhelming support for "New Labour". Usdaw's backing, together with a similar decision expected to be taken today by the executive of the GMB general union, implies a clear majority for Mr Blair in the special constitutional conference next Saturday. Explicit in his appeal to the TGWU and Unison was a criticism of their failure to consultmembers in individual ballots. Following his speech to the conference he said: "I think they have got to be very careful in taking a decision that is contrary to what appears to be the wishes of ordinary members. All the ballots have produced big majorities for change."

Mr Blair was referring to votes taken by constituency party members which show a nine-to-one majority in favour of replacing Clause IV. The only two unions to give members an individual vote have both registered large majorities in favour of the reforms, with the communication workers' union following the constituencies by voting nine to one in favour. Both the TGWU and Unison relied on consultation processes, not ballots.

The TGWU, the biggest affiliate, and Unison, the third largest, will both be holding delegate meetings before Saturday's conference. The TGWU delegates have the right to make their own decision despite a resolution from their executive backing the existing clause. Unison delegates will come under considerable pressure to take on board ballot results in other unions and local Labour parties.

By yesterday, 268 constituency parties had declared the results of ballots, with just one, Jarrow in Tyne and Wear, voting against change. With only about 100 of the 634 parties deciding not to ballot their members, the constituencies' 30 per cent share of Saturday's vote is likely to split at least 25-5 in Mr Blair's favour.

Party officials expect the unions' 70 per cent share to split 40-30 in favour of the new Clause IV, with almost all the opposition accounted for by the TGWU and Unison.

Blair loyalists are keen to turn a clear majority in favour of reform on Saturday of about 65 per cent into a proportion of 90 per cent or more, and the leader's office will now engage in a bout of behind-the-scenes arm-twisting ahead of the weekend meeting.

Mr Blair's address to the Usdaw conference was greeted with a standing ovation and was his first speech to a major union assembly since he revealed his plans to change Labour's philosophy at the party conference last October. Emphasising his theme that unions can expect "fairness but no favours" from a Labour government, he said he would be listening to them and consulting only on issues that affected their members.

It did not mean confusing unions with the government of the country, he said. "The public know that and so do you. Trade unions as much as anyone else expect a Labour government to govern in the public interest for the whole nation, without fear of favour to anyone. And we will."

He told the Usdaw delegates that both sides of industry should abandon ideas that they were engaged in trench warfare. "The divine-right-to-rule mentality of some managers is out of date; so are restrictive practices and inflexibility," Mr Blair said. A partnership was needed in which there was a strong commitment to the enterprise on the part of employees and a similar pledge from employers to treat their workforce fairly.

Garfield Davies, Usdaw general secretary, said it was important that unions supported Mr Blair: "What people want is a Labour government and not an out-of-date clause that nobody understands," he said.

However, left-wingers warned delegates that Mr Blair would follow a victory on Clause IV with an insistence that there was a divorce between the party and unions.