Unions snub Labour cash plea

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The Independent Online

Pleas from the Labour Party for extra money so it can plan for the next general election are set to run into another refusal from disaffected trade union leaders.

Party officials have spent months in negotiations with heads of the big unions in the hope of securing a deal that will allow them to start taking on new staff to prepare for the next election campaign, which may could now be only 18 months away.

Despite Tony Blair's efforts last week to mend relations by inviting union leaders to join a new forum where they can thrash out differences over public-sector reforms, most are expected to say no to requests for more cash.

The next meeting between unions and the party to discuss finance will be held in the week after the annual Trades Union Congress, which opens in Brighton tomorrow.

Britain's fourth-biggest union, the GMB - once regarded as a pillar of Labour's right wing - is vehemently opposed to the Government's policy of bringing in private firms to run public services under private finance initiative deals, and to the more recent proposal to allow the best-run NHS hospitals to become self-governing foundation hospitals. The GMB cut its affiliation to Labour two years ago but still contributes about £1m a year. Its long-serving general secretary, John Edmonds, who clashed frequently with Tony Blair, has retired, but his successor, Kevin Curran, shares most of Mr Edmonds's views on the Government's economic policies, particularly over its failure to tackle the crisis in the pensions industry.

Mr Curran is due to give a press conference today in which he is expected to demand the appointment of a minister for manufacturing, to reverse the drastic loss of jobs and to call for a referendum on Britain joining the euro.

The GMB has begun a two-year review of its relations with the Labour Party, not due to be completed until June 2005, by which time the general election may be over. A spokeswoman said: "Our members still identify with the Labour Party. Though recently it has become increasingly difficult, we are not looking to join another party. But we will not be increasing our contributions."

The third-biggest union, the TGWU, is also reviewing its support for Labour and is expected to reject requests for extra funds. In a newspaper article last week, the union's incoming general secretary, Tony Woodley, claimed: "For the first time in our history, a very large slice of public opinion finds itself to the left of a Labour government. On a string of issues - from pensions protection and taking railways back into public ownership, to curbing fat-cat greed and keeping the health service in public hands - this slice [is] a clear majority of the people."

Unison, the largest union, is having a meeting of its political fund committee on 15 September to decide whether to give the Labour Party what it is asking for. Unison has also opposed government plans for health reforms, which it sees as a form of privatisation.

The row over public-sector reforms is likely to mask the fact that union relations with the Government have improved from the state of almost open warfare that prevailed a couple of years ago.

* David Blunkett and ministers have been accused by Britain's foremost black trade union leader, Sir Bill Morris, the TGWU general secretary, of pandering to racists and indulging in a "silent conspiracy" to ignore the findings of the Macpherson report into the murder of Stephen Lawrence by white racists.