Bill Morris, general secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union, rounded on the 'modernisers' in the Shadow Cabinet and declared his opposition to the Labour leader's vision of one member, one vote.
Casting aside a prepared speech, an impassioned T & G leader argued that some senior Labour figures wanted union money, but not their influence. Although they were not named, this was seen as a reference to Tony Blair, a T & G sponsored MP, and Gordon Brown.
Mr Morris's speech, which received a standing ovation at the union's biennial conference, sets the scene for tough negotiations this summer over the party's structure. Despite a personal plea from Mr Smith on Wednesday, the 650 union delegates at Bournemouth overwhelmingly passed a resolution calling for the retention of a collective union input into the election of Labour leader and the selection of Parliamentary candidates.
Mr Smith's office has indicated that he might be prepared to countenance a union presence in the electoral college for the party leadership, but aides repeated yesterday that only party members should select MPs.
Amid an increasingly emotional response from delegates, the T & G leader warned his opponents: 'We will not be moved.' In his most powerful speech of the conference, he said that some senior Labour figures had made no attempt to support the relationship between the two wings of the movement. They had tried to distance themselves from unions whose members 'bitterly resented' being portrayed as Labour's main problem. 'It would be foolish in the pursuit of the floating voter ever to abandon our most natural supporters,' he said. 'We are not turkeys. We are not voting for Christmas.'
Mr Morris urged the party to get 'this wretched and irrelevant debate' behind it. Later he said that the issue required 'cool thoughts and rational judgement'.
Supporting the T & G's resolution, delegate Mike Ward said: 'We are not the tail wagging the dog. We are the dog . . . but we are not Rottweilers and we don't need muzzling.'
Moving the motion, Dave Quayle, a Manchester delegate, urged Mr Smith not to change the relationship: 'It is not a war we wanted, but it is one we will win . . .'Reuse content