Mr Blair has tried to distance himself and the party from the unions since becoming leader in July, but the union declaration last night will provide ammunition for ministers to attack Labour for still being in hock to the unions.
In a contemptuous dismissal of the new 'one delegate, one vote' system at the conference, Labour's two largest affiliates said their delegates would be mandated to follow union policy in every vote. The left- led Transport and General Workers' Union and the centrist GMB general union together command more than a quarter of the vote at the conference. Other large unions also said their delegations would each vote as a block.
A Labour Party document prepared for the conference, starting today in Blackpool, said: 'There will be no block voting at this year's conference. It will be a matter for individual delegates to decide how they cast their vote.'
But on the eve of the conference, Bill Morris, leader of the TGWU, which commands nearly 14 per cent of the conference vote, said his colleagues were 'representatives not individual delegates . . . Every member is under an obligation to vote according to the policy of the TGWU.' He refused to be drawn on whether that constituted a breach of party policy, but said it was not 'a practical proposition' to allow delegates a free vote. Asked if his colleagues would be tempted to vote against union policy, he said: 'That question does not arise. Our delegation is very disciplined.'
John Edmonds, general secretary of the GMB, was one of the architects of the policy allowing delegates to vote as individuals. But he said of his union's delegation: 'They are here as delegates from the GMB and will be expected to express union policy.'
It was 'unthinkable' that they would vote against union policy. Most of the issues were covered by resolutions passed at the GMB's annual conference. 'You would be hard put to find an issue on which we don't have a policy.' The union had a policy of 'mandated voting' but if there was a question of conscience for an individual, that would be considered, he added.
The GMB leader was filmed ceremoniously tossing the 'block vote' into a bin outside last year's conference in Brighton, which introduced the new principle. Under the leadership of the late John Smith, the union vote was cut from 90 per cent to 70 per cent and it was decided that party delegates should be allowed to vote as individuals.
Last night Mr Blair insisted that the block vote had 'died'. 'People are entitled to vote as individual members,' he said. 'Of course if they are delegates from a constituency or other organisation, they may have a policy and that policy may determine how they vote as individuals. But they vote as individuals. That is clear.'
However, even the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union, which is at the opposite end of the political spectrum from the transport workers and was a pioneer of the principle of one member, one vote, said its delegates would be expected to abide by union policy.
Bill Jordan, president of the AEEU, said there would be a wide range of issues on which individuals would be able to choose how they vote: 'No union fought harder for one member, one vote. We're not going to have a mockery made of that victory.'
Under the new voting system, delegates are issued with bar-coded votes - one for and one against each resolution - weighted by their union or consitituency's voting strength. The votes are counted by computer and not identified in the result. But delegation members could be asked to show their uncast ballots to demonstrate which they voted. The votes commanded by each delegate vary from 20,000 to as few as 1,000.Reuse content