Unions set to retain voting power

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The Independent Online
HOPES of an early end to the use of the union block vote over policy at Labour Party conferences have been abandoned.

Leaders of the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union, the most powerful supporter of the principle of one-member one-vote, has conceded the need for separate union voting at the annual conferences.

An AEEU document, to be presented to a Labour review group after this week's conference in Blackpool, will propose cutting union input by more than half. But the AEEU has accepted the strength of feeling among union representatives on the committee for strong constitutional links on policy-making. No change is possible without union endorsement.

The AEEU is expected to suggest that the union vote - which will be cut from 90 per cent to 70 per cent next year under proposals expected to be agreed at this year's conference - should be further reduced to 31 per cent. MPs and Euro MPs would have a direct say for the first time, wielding 20 per cent of the vote. Constituency delegates would command 46 per cent, as opposed to the 27 per cent planned next year.

Gavin Laird, general secretary of the AEEU, is also suggesting that union delegates be allowed a 'free vote' where there is no agreed union policy. But given the unions' inclination to mandate delegates on almost every issue on which they feel strongly, critics say that in reality this involves retaining the block vote.

Under the Laird plan, delegates would be seen to vote individually rather than having the union general secretaries hold up a card with their union's voting strength on it. Mr Laird argues in an internal union memorandum that although his system would still involve a sizeable union influence, it would avoid 'the spectacle of 'union barons' casting millions of votes'.

Under his proposals, each union would initially elect one delegate for every 10,000 of its members who paid the political levy - some of whom may not be Labour supporters. Ultimately delegates would be elected in proportion to the number of party members in the union.

The two other biggest unions have consistently backed a separate union presence at the conference. Bill Morris, general secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union, supports the reduction to 70 per cent and is prepared 'to listen to the debate' over further cuts. John Edmonds, leader of the GMB general union, wants a 50 per cent union vote with delegates voting individually.

Mr Laird adds: 'Our aim should be to abolish the block vote, but at the same time create a system that still maintains union influence.' He points out that the size of the union vote at conference will not be as crucial in future because political direction will emerge from policy forums on which there will be strong union presence.