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Last Updated: Thursday, 13 September 2007, 13:41 GMT 14:41 UK
Brown's relations with the unions
By James Hardy
Political correspondent, BBC News

TUC delegates
The row over pay proved to be a strain on relations

It could have been worse - but not a lot.

Much of the goodwill among the unions for Gordon Brown as new Labour leader has evaporated this week.

The TUC's annual gathering in Brighton comes to a close after four days of public and private squabbling.

Both sides will retire to lick their wounds and size up the prospects for peace at the Labour conference.

Signs of discontent were obvious from the start because of the bitterness felt by the public sector unions over their below-inflation pay award.

That boiled over with the blunt warning from Gordon Brown on Monday that he'd take no risks with the economy and that meant no inflationary pay rises.

Furious

But, as that spat raged in public, behind the scenes a probably more damaging argument was being played out.

Not to put too fine a point on it, Mr Brown was furious at the defiance of the GMB - and its supporters among other unions - over its call for a referendum on the proposed EU treaty.

The prime minister became personally involved in an increasingly angry stand-off which culminated in the failure of the TUC general council, comprising many of the general secretaries, to agree a face-saving deal.

Many unions resented what they saw as the heavy-handed tactics employed by Mr Brown and his ministers.

Add to that a package of Labour Party reforms that would water down union power at its conference and the mix gets pretty combustible.

The two sides are still talking - just - about the proposals to scrap the "contemporary resolutions" often used by the unions to inflict policy defeats on the party leadership.

But they remain poles apart and further bloodshed can't be ruled out.

'Engage'

One member of the government, dusting himself off as he headed back to Westminster, lamented that some unions didn't appear to have noticed there was a new prime minister.

"They haven't quite realised we can go back to a more straightforward relationship where, of course, we can disagree but we can also engage," he said.

On the positive side, there is a clear recognition of that engagement which will survive this week's convulsions.

An extraordinary 17 Cabinet ministers attended the annual general council dinner and many more junior ministers have also been in attendance - specifically to show a change of tone in the post-Blair era.

It's been a bruising week and the bad feeling may spill over into the Labour conference, but for all ructions, there's a strong feeling on both sides that the trench warfare of the Blair years must be consigned to the past.


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