Smith risks career with ultimatum to unions: Labour leader makes 'final offer' on party democracy. Patricia Wynn Davies reports

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The Independent Online
JOHN SMITH yesterday embarked on a gamble that could risk the end of his political career as he set out what he insists is his final offer to unions on his vision of 'one member, one vote' party democracy.

Mr Smith explicitly confirmed in a television interview that he would give ground on applying Omov to elections for the party leader and deputy, but he will not compromise on selections of parliamentary candidates.

The Labour leader set out what party sources said was his final stall after John Edmonds, general secretary of the GMB general union, one of Labour's largest affiliates, rubbished as 'fraudulent' Mr Smith's claim that his plans would enhance democracy.

Four-fifths of constituencies have indicated in a consultation concluded at the weekend that they favour change in the way the party leader and prospective MPs are selected. Just over half back either 'one member, one vote' in its pure form or the 'levy-plus' system, now backed by Mr Smith, under which political levy-paying trade unionists could become party members with full voting rights on payment of additional top-up fee.

He must now clear the hurdle of persuading a majority of a special 19 July session of the ruling National Executive Committee to back him.

He is expected to achieve that if all his supporters turn up, but most of the union block vote, which will account for 70 per cent of votes at the policy-making party conference in the autumn is currently against him.

Mr Smith insisted on BBC's On The Record yesterday that severing Labour's links with the unions was 'the last thing on my mind . . . Indeed, I want to strengthen them'. But there were difficulties about saying that those who paid the political levy were automatically entitled to participation in the selection of a Labour candidate. 'It is important that the people who take part in that are identified with the Labour party . . . We don't want people from other political parties or supporting other political causes taking part in our internal democracy.'

As Mr Smith points out in an ultimatum to the unions in today's Labour Party News, the party conference rejected the previous electoral college block voting system two years ago, but put nothing in its place. 'I do not believe we can put off selecting our candidates for yet another year, when the Government is in deep trouble and the possibility of a general election cannot be ruled out,' he says.

Mr Smith's supporters believe the tide of union opinion will change because they are now faced with a hybrid proposal. At the time most unions voted on the issue the concession over party leadership elections had not been officially sanctioned.

Mr Smith's camp is betting that unions will look with a fresh eye at the revised plan. This, and the flexibility some unions left themselves at their own conferences and in party conference resolutions drafted since, could work in his favour as a summer of negotiation and persuasion wears on, an aide said.

But Mr Edmonds, speaking on BBC TV's Breakfast With Frost yesterday, said: 'You can't ask people to pay contributions into the Labour Party and then say 'you have no democratic rights'.'