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The BBC's Jon Pienaar
"The word is the unions are being helpful and constructive"
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The BBC's Nick Robinson
"There is real drama here"
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banner Wednesday, 27 September, 2000, 11:12 GMT 12:12 UK
Labour tells unions to back down
Brown at the conference
Gordon Brown told the unions: No compromise
By BBC political correspondent Nicholas Jones

Chancellor Gordon Brown and Social Security Secretary Alistair Darling have appealed to union leaders to back down over a threatened rebellion on pensions.

The ministers held the meeting in an effort to head off an embarrassing confrontation at the Labour party conference in Brighton on Wednesday afternoon.

GMB leader John Edmonds
GMB leader John Edmonds agreed the motion
And they issued a blunt message to the union leaders: We will not compromise.

The Labour leadership has been worried about being defeated after unions pledged to press ahead with a motion calling for a rise in pensions.

The unions and some local constituencies have tabled a motion which seeks to put pressure on the government to restore the link between the state pension and average earnings.

Tony Blair and Mr Brown had hoped to head off a revolt by hinting that pensions were set to rise by more than the rate of inflation. But union leaders were confident their motion would be carried.

Hours before the debate, Mr Brown and Mr Darling are believed to have told the union liaison committee that they would not do any deal on restoring the link between pensions and earnings.

'Riot act'

In what was described as a blunt, no-holds-barred meeting, Mr Brown appealed to union leaders - including Rodney Bickerstaffe, leader of Unison, and the GMB leader John Edmonds - to withdraw their motion.

One union leader said afterwards the chancellor "read them the riot act" and said that in the interests of party unity they should back down.

A spokesman for the chancellor said Mr Brown and Mr Darling told the unions the government's position could not be changed.

They wanted the unions to trust what Mr Brown and the prime minister had said about the plans to give pensioners an above-inflation increase.

Mr Brown's spokesman said the leadership was not prepared to accept a conference fudge.

Union delegations began meeting afterwards to consider what Mr Brown and Mr Darling told them.

And the party leadership was expected to meet shortly before the debate to decide what line to take.

Tough talking

Unless the unions do back down, it seems like the motion will be approved, as most unions are committed to supporting the restoration of the link between the rise in earnings and the state pension.

Mr Brown flew back from the IMF meeting in Prague late on Tuesday night.

The motion, which would give the government some flexibility over ways to boost pensioners' incomes, was agreed on Tuesday by a group of unions and constituency parties.

Pensions - and the pressure to get the state pension linked to the rise in earnings - was voted as the issue which most delegates wanted to debate.

The motion, which took two days to agree, calls on the government "to introduce further measures to reduce pensioner poverty and boost pensioner income by an immediate and substantial increase in the basic state pension and by linking the basic state pension to, for example, average earnings or inflation, which ever is the greater".

The unions behind the motion say they believe it will be approved by the conference.

Solid union support

The outcome of the vote might depend on Mr Darling's speech. He is expected to explain how the government is responding to pensioner poverty.

Rodney Bickerstaffe
Rodney Bickerstaffe is under pressure from both sides
Most unions and many constituency parties are committed to the restoration of the link between earnings and pensions.

The pension row has led to the re-appearance of the kind of behind-the-scenes negotiations and arm-twisting which Mr Blair had hoped were a thing of the past following his reforms of the party's policy-making process.

In recent years, controversial issues have been sorted out in advance of the conference to prevent any likelihood of an unexpected defeat or having to approve badly-worded policy proposals.

At the final meeting of the campaigners, as they agreed the wording of their motion, the argument revolved around the placing of two words: "for example."

The constituencies thought that this provided something of a 'get out' and they were anxious for it to be removed.

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