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Unions Play Havoc With Labour's Plans

Britain's left tries to stay to the center

Britain's opposition Labour Party and the trade unions that contribute half of its funds are suddenly in open - and politically damaging - conflict. Dissension between them appears to throw doubt on whether Tony Blair, the party leader, will be able to project Labour as a party of moderation, in control of the country's work force.

Less than eight months before Britain's scheduled general election, the unions on Wednesday dealt Mr. Blair a double blow. First, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) at its annual conference in the northern city of Blackpool defied him by a landslide vote for a statutory national minimum wage of L4.29 ($6.60) per hour. The TUC's decisive vote in favor of a minimum wage represented a major setback for Blair, who has insisted that such a figure should be decided only after Labour has won the general elections. He has let it be known that if there is to be a minimum wage it should be set much lower.

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At the same time, Britain's postal workers' union summarily rejected a plea by Blair that a fresh poll of its members be held before two 24-hour nationwide mail strikes were held. These would follow eight previous strikes that have already disrupted letter and parcel deliveries throughout Britain.

Earlier in the week Blair and union leaders had clashed angrily over a Labour Party threat that, if it wins the elections, Labour may force workers to accept industrial arbitration rather than go on strike.

The TUC's tough line at Blackpool shocked Blair and his advisers who until now believed they had tamed industrial militancy and could convince voters that a Labour government would be strong enough to resist the power of trade unions.

In the two years he has been Labour leader, Blair has worked hard to take the party toward the political center. He calls the party "New Labour" and has tried to distance it from old-fashioned socialism.

But as leader after leader took the rostrum at Blackpool and accused Blair of "betraying" Labour principles, it became clear that many of them are far from happy with the new party line and want to flex their political muscle.

IN a newspaper article timed to coincide with the early sessions of the week-long conference, David Blunkett, Labour's employment spokesman, described some union leaders as "armchair revolutionaries." In pursuit of New Labour's centrist line, Mr. Blunkett has lately argued that the unions should support cooperation between management and workers. He has pointed to Germany as a model of how the two sides of industry can work in harmony.

Aware that the Margaret Thatcher and Major administrations have won popularity by taking tough action against trade unions, Blair wants to convince voters that Labour, too, is strongly opposed to industrial disruption. Blair appears to have counted on the fact that trade-union membership has fallen sharply since 1979 when the Conservatives came to power under Mrs. Thatcher. Membership figures currently stand at 31 percent of the nation's work force, compared with 59 percent 17 years ago.

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But Blair's advisers have reminded him that Labour lost the 1979 general election against a background of widespread strikes now described by historians as "the winter of discontent." It is thought that another such round of strikes could gravely affect Labour's bid in the general elections.

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