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banner Wednesday, 27 September, 2000, 18:09 GMT 19:09 UK
Blair's Old Labour defeat
Prime Minister Tony Blair
Tony Blair faces fresh claims of arrogance
By BBC News Online political correspondent Nick Assinder

Tony Blair has suffered a major conference setback after a damaging battle with unions and delegates over pensions.

He was overwhelmingly defeated by his own party, which insisted by a margin of three to two that the earnings link with pensions should be restored.

The result came after a heated and emotional debate and a day of desperate arm twisting and backroom negotiations which appear to have made matters worse.

And the prime minister was forced to watch a conference that, for the first time in years, looked like an Old Labour rally, with the unions flexing their muscles.

Powerful union bosses Rodney Bickerstaffe and John Edmonds were joined by party veteran Barbara Castle - 90 this week - to tear into the government for letting down pensioners by abandoning a previous pledge to restore the link.

Despite the prime minister's pleas only 24 hours earlier for unity, he suffered the biggest conference rebellion of his leadership.

But straight after the vote was announced the government insisted it would not cave in to the union pressure.

Roundly defeated

But if Mr Blair maintains his hard line he risks dangerously undermining his carefully-crafted conference message that he is listening to people's concerns and will act.

And he will face renewed allegations of being arrogant and out of touch.

He had devoted a key section of his crunch conference speech to a pledge to help pensioners and a direct plea to the unions not to rock the boat. But, when the chips were down, he was roundly defeated.

It will now be up to him to come up with some formula to persuade the unions that he has met their concerns in some other way.

Mr Bickerstaffe led the revolt, declaring "this is not the return of Old Labour" - but it certainly looked a lot like it.

Here was the classic clash between union "barons" on one side and the platform on the other.

The debate rang with old-style language about supporting composites and demands for the motion to be remitted.

There were dire warnings about the electoral cost of disunity and allowing the Tories back into power.

It was without doubt the most electrifying debate of the conference and it was exactly the sort of thing Mr Blair did not want to see broadcast to the nation.

Compromise

And before the debate there were frantic attempts to agree a compromise with the unions.

There were heated meetings in "smoke filled rooms" and the conference centre was rife with rumours.

One suggested Mr Blair had done a deal with the unions to buy off a revolt, only to be overruled by Chancellor Gordon Brown.

Then it was suggested the unions had agreed to remit their motion.

The attempts to head off the revolt apparently infuriated the union leaders and may have actually strengthened their resolve.

The result is deeply embarrassing to Mr Blair, who believed his well-received conference speech had drawn a line under his recent troubles.

He now faces months of wrangling over the pensions issue, which will dog him right until the next general election.

And, at that poll, Britain's 11 million pensioners may well vent their anger at him through the ballot box.

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See also:

27 Sep 00 | Labour
Labour defeated over pensions
27 Sep 00 | UK Politics
The pensions maze
26 Sep 00 | Labour
Blair pledges to make amends
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