The Labour leadership and the two biggest unions yesterday clashed over the party's decision to abandon a target for a national minimum wage.
Both the Transport & General and the public service union Unison resurrected a damaging internal row by calling for a reversion to the party's original formula which would produce a figure of pounds 4.15 an hour.
The TGWU, Labour's biggest affiliate, yesterday published a poll showing overwhelming support among electors for the principle of a minimum wage and considerable backing for pounds 4.15 - based on half median male earnings.
The survey, conducted by the Electoral Reform Society, found that nearly 79 per cent of the public wanted to see a statutory rate, while nearly 69 per cent backed a legal floor of pounds 4.15. About 87 per cent believed that political parties supporting such a policy should declare the figure before the general election.
Senior Shadow Cabinet sources said the poll was "flawed" because respondents were not asked if the impact on employment should be taken into account. "We are not going to be cavalier with jobs," the source said. Labour intends to set up a low pay commission to advise on a rate decided on the basis of economic circumstances.
Bill Morris, general secretary of the transport union, said the survey proved the issue could be a vote-winner. "This is a clear message for all politicians and bad employers alike," he said.
The T&G will also table a motion supporting the figure for Labour's annual conference in October where the issue will be one of the most sensitive to be debated.
The Government is keen to exploit Labour's difficulties with its union affiliates on the national minimum wage which Tories regard as the Opposition's economic Achilles' heel.
To ministerial accusations that a statutory rate would cost jobs, Alan Jinkinson, general secretary of Unison, said that only "cowboy companies" paying pounds 1.50 an hour "may decide to go out of business".
Mr Jinkinson, whose union is the biggest in the country but only part of it is affiliated to Labour, said a minimum of pounds 4.15 would have no more than an "initial and marginal" impact on employment.
Speaking on the eve of his union's annual conference in Brighton, Mr Jinkinson said taxpayers subsidise low pay by pounds 2bn through family credit. That would be cut by between pounds 1.2bn and pounds 1.3bn, he said.
nThe Royal College of Nursing yesterday rejected a call by Unison to attend pay talks scheduled by NHS management for Thursday. Mr Jinkinson said some members were disenchanted with the RCN leadership because of its determination to pursue separate negotiations.