Union chiefs divided over ability to deliver Labour's core voters

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Indy Politics

Rena Wood summed up the mood among Labour Party activists yesterday. She is not looking forward to knocking on doors at the next election and defending the Government over Iraq and a host of other issues. But Ms Wood, a member of the Unison public service union, will be out campaigning.

Rena Wood summed up the mood among Labour Party activists yesterday. She is not looking forward to knocking on doors at the next election and defending the Government over Iraq and a host of other issues. But Ms Wood, a member of the Unison public service union, will be out campaigning.

"Tony Blair promised to deliver on new employment rights and that will make getting the vote out easier. But we still face a big challenge," she said.

Union leaders appear divided over whether Mr Blair's concessions to the left would enable them to get the "core" vote out. Some thought the deal meant they were duty-bound to mobilise their troops, others that there was more to elicit from Mr Blair. No one pretended he was enthusiastic about the reforms, not even his aides.

A Downing Street official said the Prime Minister knew that when he turned up at the TUC conference in Brighton on Monday, he could not deliver a lecture on employee flexibility and the need for root and branch reform of the public services. "He has not got to where he is by being unable to read the political situation," said one of his advisers.

The aide said Mr Blair had "called the bluff" of union chiefs who had insisted the Warwick accord on employment rights was needed to ensure that the Labour vote did not evaporate. "They've got it, now we will see what they can do."

Dave Prentis, general secretary of Unison, the party's biggest affiliate, believes it may still be difficult to kick-start the party machine at constituency level. While Mr Blair's address would go some way to restoring trust, there was more to be done to regain core voters and "energise" activists.

Mr Prentis said: "What is needed now is a manifesto which reflects the true values and concerns of Labour voters."

The Unison leader was referring to the potential influence of Alan Milburn, the Blairite newly appointed to the Cabinet with a brief to draw up the election manifesto.

Mr Prentis is insisting that the Government commits itself to a timetable for introducing the measures agreed in the Warwick accord to prevent Blairites delaying their introduction indefinitely.

Tony Woodley, general secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union, said it was important the Warwick deal was placed "at the heart" of the manifesto. "If the third term is seen as a period when the Government is seeking social justice it will be much easier to get the Labour votes out," he said.

Derek Simpson, leader of the Amicus white collar union, was more hopeful that Mr Blair's promises might enthuse voters: "We asked for the ammunition. Now we've got it and it's up to us to use it."

On the conference floor, delegates were angry about Iraq and sceptical about the Prime Minister's pledge. Mike Hatswell, Bradford branch secretary of the Amicus union, said: "We wanted a Rolls Royce and so far we have had a Lada, but it is better than nothing and better than the other lot."

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