SHARP differences over the links between the trade unions and Labour began to emerge last night as a top union leader issued a thinly coded criticism of moves to loosen them.
In a newspaper article on the eve of a visit to the TUC conference by Tony Blair, the leader of the Labour Party, in which he will endorse a friendly but 'arms length' relationship between the TUC and the party, John Edmonds, leader of the GMB general workers' union, said that the relationship was 'one of the defining links of British politics'.
And addressing the TUC Congress in Blackpool, David Blunkett, the Labour Party chairman, said there should be 'consolidation and continuity' in the constitutional relationship following reforms last year.
In his article in the Times Mr Edmonds went out of his way to say that Mr Blunkett's words would not appeal to the 'modernisers' in the party.
Mr Edmonds' tone contrasted sharply with the message that Mr Blair is expected to deliver to union leaders at a dinner in Blackpool tonight.
He will actively endorse the TUC's new policy of seeking to extend contacts with other political parties, and he also wants to make it clear that he favours the friendly but 'arm's length' relationship between Labour and the TUC set out by John Monks, the TUC general secretary.
Mr Blair will endorse the new TUC thinking that it is the unions' task to represent their members' interests to governments of whatever political party.
Mr Blair has already said that a future Labour government would listen to the TUC as it will to other industrial organisations like the CBI, but that he does not intend a future Labour government to reward the trade union movement with 'special favours'.
He will emphasise in discussions with senior union leaders that he sees Mr Monks's recent remarks about relations with all the politicial parties as essential to the 'evolving relationship' he envisages between the party and the trade union movement. And he will endorse Mr Monks's view that it is in the interests of neither to be seen merely as the two wings of a single movement, dependent on each other.
Mr Monks said that the union movement wanted no more than Mr Blair had promised. The Labour leader's comments that the union leaders would be treated with 'fairness not favours' was not a 'snub' as some journalists had thought. He said that all the movement required was fairness.
However, he reminded the Labour leader that there was a list of priorities. Fairness was required for those dismissed at the GCHQ listening centre, by miners 'sacrificed' in the cutbacks, and by public servants like the signal workers. Mr Monks also reminded the Labour leadership that the movement required a radical change in what the TUC argues are anti- union laws. 'Give us fairness, Tony. We'll settle for that - and we'll work with you gladly to rebuild the country's prosperity.'
Mr Blunkett told delegates: 'We are proud of the men and women who make up the trade unions. You and your members are part of our historic family. But you as trade unionists don't expect or need favours from us, because you seek what is right, what is just, what is fair.'
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