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Tuesday, 29 September, 1998, 13:26 GMT 14:26 UK
'Dinosaurs' savage New Labour
Conference hall
The site of Steven Spielberg's next prehistoric blockbuster?
By Nick Assinder in Blackpool.

For more than a moment on Monday, Blackpool's Winter Gardens looked more like the setting for Jurassic Park III than the Labour party conference.

All the old union dinosaurs, written-off by New Labour, were back on the march. And they were there to trample all over Chancellor Gordon Brown and trade secretary Peter Mandelson.

For the second day running, the Labour leadership had to put up with a string of attacks on its economic policies and "control freak" tendencies.

The backlash came after Mr Brown did what many delegates believe he does best - borrowing Tory ideas.

In a speech that could have come straight from Margaret Thatcher's famous "the lady's not for turning" conference address, he told the union bosses "from this government there will be no U-turns, no left turns, no right turns."

And in another echo of the Thatcher years he added: "There is no other way."

One mischievous delegate later said: "With Maggie, TINA stood for 'there is no alternative', with this government it means 'Tony is no alternative.'"

And that is what has infuriated the unions. They believe the chancellor is sticking too rigidly to Tory-style economic policies.

They played the game during the general election by refusing to rock the boat, and they expect some sort of payback.

None of them argues with Labour's "fairness not favours" approach but many think the chancellor is being far too rigid and is threatening thousands of job losses while squeezing public sector pay.

That anger surfaced at the TUC conference in Blackpool two weeks ago and, on Monday, it erupted again.

Public service union boss Rodney Bickerstaffe savaged the government for slashing debt while refusing to honour last year's nurses pay award in full.

"Let's have some jam today for those who will look after you tomorrow," he told delegates to rapturous applause.

"Don't just give us a vision of the promised land, give us a place in it."

TUC president John Edmunds hammered home the attack, accusing ministers of writing another chapter in the "history of Britain's economic decline."

Peter Mandelson
Mandelson - not well received
It was little better for Mr Mandelson. His "no alternative" speech received barely polite support while a delegate demanding he abandons any plans to sell off the Post Office was greeted with delight.

Transport union leader Bill Morris had already laid down one challenge to the trade secretary by demanding he rebutted claims he was out to water down key areas of the government's union laws.

Mr Mandelson once again failed to deliver, simply declaring that the "Fairness at Work" proposals would "correct" the Tory-created imbalance in the workplace.

So, once again this tightly-controlled conference saw the leadership well and truly roughed up. And any attempt to again write off the unions as dinosaurs will not wash.

The majority of Britain's trade unions have gone through the same painful process of modernisation that Labour has. They are as much the New Unions as the government is New Labour.

The pressure on the government will not, therefore, go away.

And if ministers fail to deliver an acceptable deal for the nurses and other public sector workers, and if recession really does hit, then things will start getting seriously stormy for Tony Blair.

BBC News
John Sergeant reports on the first day's speeches
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John Pienaar: grumbles from the faithful over conference commercialisation

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