Stand up to them, Mr Smith: These are the block-voting union barons whose power must be challenged if Labour is to become democratic, relevant and capable of winning, argues John Torode

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LABOUR'S leaders tend to define themselves by standing up to some powerful but unpopular group within their party. Neil Kinnock, a man of the left by origin, successfully drove the Militant cuckoo out of Labour's nest. John Smith, a product of the block-vote system, is challenging the power of the union barons. Mr Smith has chosen the right target, but seems likely to lose the battle.

Now that Militant has departed, it is the block vote that does most harm to Labour's image. As long as party policy - however unfairly - is seen to be decided at Labour's annual conference by a handful of heavy, grey, middle-aged men holding up cards worth hundreds of thousands of votes, it will be hard to persuade potential supporters that the party is either democratic or relevant.

John Smith, more than most, knows the power of the collectivist block vote, because last year he was its beneficiary. Even before Mr Kinnock stepped down after Labour's fourth general election defeat in a row, a group of union barons led by John Edmonds of the GMB had decided that Smith was their man for the Labour leadership. The race for the top job was effectively over before it began, and the power-brokers clutching the voting cards made little attempt to conceal the fact.

When the other runners started to shout 'stitch-up', their complaints sparked a wider mood of public resentment at the arrogant crudity with which the union bosses were behaving. Mr Smith became aware of the harm that the undemocratic link was doing, both to his party's cause and his reputation.

This is why, in his belated leadership campaign manifesto, Mr Smith pledged - albeit rather vaguely - that his successor would be elected by direct vote of all individual members, somehow topped up by the votes of MPs. He also said that he wanted the weight - reduced this year from 90 to 70 per cent - given at annual conference to the union block vote to be reduced in favour of 'the mass membership' - meaning the delegates elected by members of local constituency parties. The problem is that the 'mass' membership numbers are a piddling 200,000 - far fewer than the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats claim. In contrast, there are 4.5 million trade unionists paying the political levy.

A year on, Mr Smith's commitment has been translated into his advocacy at union conferences of Omov - One Member One Vote. Omov, Smith- style, would tackle two out of the three elements that go towards a genuine increase in Labour Party democracy, namely, new mechanisms for electing the leader and selecting parliamentary candidates (or deselecting sitting MPs). Significantly, it does not tackle the third and most crucial area: that of a replacement for the union block vote at the policy-making annual conference.

The suggestion is that trade union members who pay the political levy would be asked whether - for a small extra fee - they would become full members of the party. Assuming that a fair percentage of the 4.5 million did so, it would create a mass membership party at a stroke.

The new recruits would be able to vote secretly and individually for the leader and for their Parliamentary candidate as members of their local constituency party. No longer would affiliated local union delegates, commanding mini-block votes, be deemed to express their members' views about their MP. No longer would a national electoral college composed of block-vote wielding union bosses - as well as MPs (who should retain a considerable say) and constituency delegates - choose Labour's leader and deputy leader.

Omov is a dream of a slogan. Who could be against the idea of one member, one vote? Well, the unions, actually, whose leaders see it as a threat to their power. Mr Smith's partial and modest proposals have produced a furious reaction. Last week, delegates to the annual conference of the Manufacturing, Science and Finance union voted against Omov.

On Sunday, the GMB, meeting at Portsmouth, is expected to follow suit. Mr Edmonds - usually classed as a moderate or a reformer - has already made clear his determination to retain separate voting procedures for union branches affiliated to local parties. For the first time in three years he has decided not to invite Mr Smith, his erstwhile favourite son, to address his conference.

Mr Smith's advisers had assumed that union leaders would not be too obstructive to constituency-level reform, as long as their domination of national conference was left unchallenged, at least for the present. This calculation has been proved incorrect. Any challenge to old-fashioned, collectivist union power will be resisted, whatever expressions of goodwill may be uttered by supposedly reformist union leaders.

Of all the major unions, only the newly-merged engineers and electricians is prepared to support Mr Smith. The prospect facing Labour's Leader at Labour's conference in October is therefore defeat or significant retreat. Either course would gravely damage Mr Smith's already dented credibility.

Most modernisers in the Parliamentary Labour Party are urging Mr Smith to stand and fight for Omov. They argue that the unions would dare not defeat him if it were made clear that to do so would be to drag Mr Smith down. A successor chosen after such a crisis would be seen as nothing more than a creature of the unions, and therefore unacceptable to the British public. Driving Mr Smith from office would guarantee the loss of the next general election. The end result could even be the destruction of the Labour Party. No union boss - except perhaps a kamikaze pilot such as Arthur Scargill - would contemplate such a possibility.

One moderniser drew an explicit parallel with Hugh Gaitskell, who, a generation ago, lost a crucial conference vote on nuclear disarmament. He told the conference that he would 'fight, fight and fight again' to save the party he loved. His popular esteem soared, and a year later the vote was reversed. Had Gaitskell compromised he might have won the initial vote. But he would have lost credibility with the public and ensured that Tory governments continued to be elected through the Sixties.

The problem facing those who want Mr Smith to dare the union bosses to vote down his reform plans in October, is that Mr Smith's version of Omov is an inadequate, uninspiring thing. It is hardly worth fighting for. Even if passed it would do nothing to end the shameful, symbolic television spectacle of The Casting of the Block Votes.

Mr Smith should therefore raise the stakes and present the public with a battle it can understand this October. The Labour leader should declare that he is wedded to enfranchising all those levy payers who so desire and that this will mean the end of the block vote. Union leaders who protest that they pay three-quarters of Labour's bills and insist on their right to buy bundles of votes in return, should be told both to put up and shut up.

The unions have nowhere else to go. Could they reach a better deal with the Liberal Democrats or the Socialist Workers Party? The truth is they would continue to make donations to Labour even if the block vote were abolished. A victory for Mr Smith would, for the first time, make him look like a leader. And Labour might win elections.

(Photographs omitted)