The Labour Party in Blackpool: Low-paid and jobless put at centre-stage: Shadow Chancellor reaffirms minimum wage policy. Stephen Goodwin reports

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The Independent Online
FULL EMPLOYMENT was the make-or-break issue for Labour, John Edmonds, leader of the GMB general union, told the conference, as a succession of heavyweight figures warned the new leadership to keep faith with the low-paid and the jobless.

Gordon Brown, the shadow Chancellor, reaffirmed the pledge to introduce a national minimum wage but gave neither a figure nor a formula. 'Exploitation in the workplace is immoral. The Labour government will make it illegal too,' he said.

Rodney Bickerstaffe, of the public service union Unison, said the formula agreed in the past - worth pounds 4.15 a hour - would help 4 million workers. The starting level of pounds 3 an hour, mooted recently, would help only 500,000 people.

Bill Morris, general secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union, said his union had been put in the dock for daring to mention pounds 4 an hour. 'If it's a crime to stand up for the low paid, then I and every single member of my union plead guilty,' he said.

The day-long debate on economic and related issues was enlivened by Arthur Scargill, president of the National Union of Mineworkers, who attacked the party leadership for its 'abject failure' to support the railway signal workers. He said Tony Blair was right in the mid-1980s when he opposed Tory anti-trade union legislation but was wrong now when he sought to retain part of it. 'Don't be afraid of your working-class background, don't be afraid of your class,' he told the conference. When Labour had shown its unswerving commitment in the past, it had been elected.

Opening the debate, Mr Brown said Labour's new economic approach was founded on the socialist principle that the community must accept its responsibilities for 'the goals of sustained growth and full employment'. He said the party's Social Justice Commission had been asked to consider integrating tax and benefits. The Government could act now to help pensioners by scrapping the VAT rise to 17.5 per cent on fuel.

Rousing the conference with a fierce attack on patronage and 'sleaze', Mr Brown said it was 'time to call a halt to this sliding scale of Tory morality in politics.

'You know what I mean, backbenchers who take backhanders. It's time to remove the pounds 1,000-a- question Tory party MP, the pounds 10,000-a-year quango place for a failed Tory party candidate, the Tory party ex-Cabinet minister of a pounds 100,000 a year in the boardrooms of utilities he helped to privatise. These people don't need a national lottery. They've already awarded themselves all the biggest prizes.'

Mr Brown said he was serving notice on the 'Tory something- for-nothing elite, the insider dealers, the undeserving rich, the enemies of opportunity who, in pursuit of short-term gain - largely for themselves - have starved the country of long-term investment'.

Labour would work in partnership with industry, creating long- term investment agreements, a small business development bank, new technology trusts and a university for industry.

Supporting a minimum wage, Robin Cook, the party's trade and industry spokesman, said Germany was more competitive than Britain because decent working conditions lead to a more efficient workforce. He said that Labour would stop takeovers unless they were in the public interest.

Bill Jordan, president of the AEEU engineering and electrical workers, warned delegates they would be judged not on the number of promises they made, but on the extent to which the electorate believed they could deliver them.

Mr Edmonds said Labour should never again allow full employment to slip off its agenda. The pledge should be on the first page of its election manifesto. 'Full employment is our biggest idea and people like it. But pretty soon they will want to know where the new jobs will come from. How many and how quickly.'

Tony Benn, MP for Chesterfield, said unemployment was a political problem, not an economic one. The Government was not incompetent. 'It has created unemployment to discipline people . . . Even homelessness is a warning. If you have a row with your boss and you can't pick up the mortgage, you will end up in a cardboard box. Fear is the discipline of the capitalist society.'

Labour had to extend democracy, break the grip of Brussels, the IMF and the multinationals and, above all, restore hope. 'Hope is the fuel of social progress and our job is to show people that it can be done and Labour is the instrument for doing it.'

(Photograph omitted)