TUC conference begins amid Labour leadership row

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) annual conference gets under way in Brighton today, with Labour’s current leadership controversy likely to dominate proceedings.

Delegates are set to give Tony Blair a rough ride when he addresses the conference later this week, after union bosses attacked the prime minister’s refusal to announce an exact date for his departure from Downing Street.

The prime minister is expected to face a tough question and answer session from trade unionists in light of the current leadership crisis that is rocking the Labour party. Press reports also claim that union leaders are threatening to greet the prime minister’s speech with silence rather than a standing ovation.

Announcing earlier this week that he would stand down as Labour leader within the year, the prime minister joked that the 138th annual TUC conference would be his last, “probably to the relief of both of us”.

But union leaders attacked Mr Blair’s refusal to outline an exact timetable for his departure following the resignation of seven junior government members on Wednesday.

Their departure came in protest at the prime minister’s refusal to stand down amid Labour’s declining opinion poll ratings and discontent over the prime minister’s handling of the war in Iraq and the recent conflict in Lebanon.

Responding to Mr Blair’s statement, Derek Simpson general secretary of Amicus, Labour’s biggest single financial donor, said that the prime minister should have resigned already.

He claimed that union representatives, whom he described as “Labour’s foot soldiers”, were in “open revolt” in frustration at government policies which he believed were “failing”.

Union representatives are incensed at government reforms designed to increase the role of the private sector in delivering healthcare services, and are set to endorse a series of protests as part of a nationwide campaign against the changes when they meet in Brighton this week.

While reports suggest that trade union representatives will give Mr Blair’s tipped successor, Gordon Brown, a warmer reception when he speaks at a dinner in Brighton on Tuesday, the chancellor is likely to face difficult questions about his plans for Labour’s future. His stance on issues such as workers’ rights and pensions is expected to come under scrutiny.

Speaking in an interview with the BBC today, Mr Brown said that he was looking forward to a comprehensive debate about policy issues to “resolve the leadership issue” following the departure of current Labour leader Mr Blair.