25 June 2004
Unison maintained its official support for Labour this week in the face of heightened hostility from members, and despite its leaders' private anger at the government's last-minute withdrawal from a two-tier workforce deal.
In a 'bloody' annual conference, with tensions between Unison leaders and members, a potentially damaging motion calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Tony Blair was overwhelmingly defeated on June 22.
While the union's ruling executive breathed a sigh of relief, it was also furious after yet another failure to roll out local government's deal on the two-tier workforce across the rest of the public sector.
The agreement would protect the terms and conditions of privately contracted workers delivering public services.
At a meeting two weeks ago, party officials and ministers agreed to announce the roll-out. But the deal was allegedly scuppered by Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon at a Cabinet meeting on June 21, despite the apparent backing of Health Secretary John Reid and Education Secretary Charles Clarke.
According to sources, Hoon refused to sign up to the deal, holding out for concessions for the Ministry of Defence. However, Unison leaders are holding Blair personally responsible, pointing to Hoon's waning influence and rumours that he is about to be replaced by education minister David Miliband in the next reshuffle, expected shortly.
'It is implausible that Hoon would be allowed to block this,' a source told Public Finance. 'If Blair fails to deliver on this it will continue to be a running sore.'
In a shot across the bows of Blair, general secretary Dave Prentis warned that Unison's support was not unconditional. 'We will not keep our heads down, gobs shut for Labour,' he said.
The source added that the union's continued support was a pragmatic decision to maintain its influence in government. 'This is pure politics not personalities but no one actually backed Blair – there is a deep sense of disillusionment with his leadership.'
Along with the backroom battle with Blair, Unison leaders had to face an increasingly hostile membership. Sources said there was 'blood on the floor' during the local government debate, with motions censuring the leadership for its recommendation of an 8.9% three-year pay deal.
Members accused the ruling executive of putting the interests of Labour before theirs.