Unions join forces against New Labour

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Indy Politics

The big four trade unions are to join forces against New Labour in a bid to "reclaim the party", even threatening to withhold funds from constituency MPs who consistently vote against union policies.

Unison, the Transport and General Workers' Union, Amicus-AEEU and the GMB plan to meet in the coming weeks to devise a strategy to take on "the unelected minority that runs New Labour".

But, with some in Downing Street minded to sever the historic link between the Labour Party and the trade unions, opting instead to move towards state funding of political parties, the four leaders have resisted calls to disaffiliate from the party.

They fear that would mean a loss of influence as well asbetraying their members to the agenda of "big business and arch-Blairites".

Instead, they intend to use their muscle to force through changes in Government policy. In an early example of this strategy, Unison, the country's biggest union, is encouraging Labour MPs to join a rebellion against the bill to create foundation hospitals this Tuesday.

Dave Prentis, Unison's general secretary, has written to the secretaries of dozens of local Labour parties who receive money from the union, urging them to put pressure on MPs to support the rebel motion put forward by David Hinchliffe, the Health Select Committee chairman, and former health secretary Frank Dobson.

The union claims the plan to give better-run hospitals greater freedom to control their finances by enabling them to answer to locally elected committees rather than to the Government will lead to "competition and fragmentation".

A similar letter has been sent by the GMB to its MPs.

At its recent conference, Unison faced calls - eventually seen off by the leadership - to break the link to Labour. It is now ready to take part in the concerted campaign to ensure that the views of its members are listened to by Government. That too will involve financial sanctions against hostile MPs.

"There is a lot of bitterness and a lot of sour feelings towards the Government, particularly on the issues of PFI, privatisation and the war on Iraq," a Unison source said. "Dave Prentis has said he will meet the other union leaders to discuss tactics of opposition. There's a pretty fraught time ahead."

The T&G, under Tony Woodley, its new general secretary, launched a sweeping review of its relations with the Labour Party at its annual conference in Brighton last week.

As well as looking into funding, the review called for renewed political activity by T&G members in local constituency Labour parties and more lobbying at a national and regional level.

Amicus, whose general secretary, Derek Simpson, effectively won his election on a "left-wing awkward squad" ticket, takes a similar view.

"Our future is with the Labour Party and we won't look at moving our support from the Labour Party," a spokeswoman said. "We have our difficulties with theGovernment on some issues. We will fight for changes but we remain staunch in our support for the party."

Even the GMB, which under its previous leadership stripped the Labour Party of millions in funding, is signed up to this new approach.

Its new general secretary, Kevin Curran, aims to "concentrate more on the relationships with the party rather than the funding question, and not to confuse the two".

"The trade unions are the easiest way of getting in touch with the Labour Party members. We need to be used more as a conduit to get those views of party members through to the Government," a GMB source said.

Yesterday, At a meeting at TUC Congress House in London, the Socialist Campaign Group of left-wing leaders, academics and trade unionists launched their bid to "mobilise" to save the Government and party.