Tony Blair, the Labour leader, has stepped in to head off an attempt to drop John Smith's pledge of a referendum on changing the voting system for the House of Commons.
The key GMB general union confirmed last night that it would back the policy after earlier doubts about its position. "Our position still stands that we are in favour of a referendum," a spokeswoman said. The GMB's move follows a strong signal from the Labour leadership.
Mr Blair and Jack Straw, Labour's home affairs spokesman, had hinted earlier this summer that they would not stand in the way of an attempt to drop the pledge led by MPs opposed to electoral reform.
But this week Mr Straw, after discussions with Mr Blair and Robin Cook, the leading shadow Cabinet advocate of electoral reform, said: "It would be a breach of faith with the party and with the country if we were to overturn the decision to hold a referendum. It would also dishonour the pledge given by John Smith."
Derek Fatchett, MP for Leeds Central and leading opponent of the referendum, said he and his supporters were "irritated and confused" by Mr Straw's statement.
But it is understood that the opponents of the referendum have succeeded in submitting only four amendments to the Labour conference agenda - probably not enough to ensure a vote. Four other amendments have also been submitted in support of the referendum policy.
The GMB "has no interest in seeing the issue debated again", but the spokeswoman said that, if the issue is pushed to a vote at the Labour conference in October, its block vote would be cast for the referendum, agreed as a compromise in1993, after John Smith wound up the party's commission on electoral reform. This is likely to ensure that an attempt to drop the policy would be defeated, despite the decision in May by another big union, Unison, to switch sides.
Mr Blair's decision to defend the policy was greeted with delight by the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform yesterday. One of the campaign's sponsoring MPs said before Mr Straw's statement: "Tony has got to say where he stands ... to pretend to be some sort of agnostic on this is unconvincing."
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