Gordon Brown launched the fight for his political life in the West Midlands following Labour’s humiliating electoral defeat in Glasgow East.
The Prime Minister took on union barons by making it clear that he will not give in to demands for a shift to the left – and warned that the Conservatives would win the next election if Labour changed course.
He was speaking at Labour’s National Policy Forum, at Warwick University, in Coventry, following the disastrous loss of one of Labour’s safest seats in a Scottish by-election.
A Labour majority of 13,507 was overturned as the Scottish Nationalist Party snatched Glasgow East by 365 votes, sparking frenzied speculation about the Prime Minister’s future.
Union leaders led demands for change, with the head of the GMB, Paul Kenny, openly calling for a leadership contest.
The forum, held at Warwick University, was designed to draw up policies for debate at Labour’s annual conference in Manchester, in September, which will then influence the party’s General Election manifesto.
But union leaders have used it as an opportunity to demand the abolition of laws restriction industrial action, including a ban on secondary picketing.
Mr Brown made it clear they would not get their way by evoking memories of the strike-ridden period before they were introduced.
He said: “It’s not going back to the agenda of the ’70s and the ’80s. The only agenda that matters is the agenda of the future, understanding the changes taking place in the global economy.”
Speaking to trade unionists and party activists at the Warwick event, he appealed for discipline with a warning that the Conservatives would win the next general election.
He said he did not want “to wake up 24 months from now” to see education and health budgets cut, at the same time as “massive tax cuts” for the rich.
Mr Brown added: “I don’t want to wake up and find that there are massive tax cuts being given to the fewest and the richest and the wealthiest people of this country at the expense of cutting the public services of this country.”
But within hours of his speech he found himself under fire from union bosses scenting the opportunity to dictate Labour policy.
Although Mr Brown and Tony Blair before him have attempted to distance Labour from the trade unions, they continue to play a key role in the party and donated £2.6 million in the first quarter of this year, 82 per cent of all the cash Labour raised.
Mr Kenny urged Labour MPs to strongly consider mounting a leadership challenge to Mr Brown, calling the Glasgow East result an “unmitigated disaster”.
He said: “The MPs have got to make a strong decision as to whether they want to go into an election with Gordon Brown or have a contest.”
Unison general secretary Dave Prentis insisted: “It cannot be business as usual, there has to be a change of direction – a change that shows that the Government is listening and is willing to reconnect with its core supporters.”
Birmingham Labour MP Gisela Stuart (Lab Edgbaston) called for a clearer explanation of what the Government was doing to help families facing higher prices.
She said: “The danger we face is doing too many small initiatives to help people, when it is hard for people to see how they all add up to a big picture.”
Khalid Mahmood (Lab Perry Barr) insisted Labour was still well-placed to beat the Conservatives.
He said: “There is a global recession, so the question is who has the experience and can provide the leadership to see us through that? There’s nobody I can see in the Conservative Party.”
Mr Brown walked into the conference at Warwick University to applause and a standing ovation, and was given the same treatment as he left.
The Prime Minister’s Cabinet colleagues also rallied to his support. Alistair Darling, the Chancellor, insisted that Mr Brown was still the best man to lead the party.
He said: “I believe that Gordon Brown is the best Prime Minister. He is the best leader of our party. He has a very clear sense of direction where he believes we as a country ought to go.”
And a new opinion poll gave the Conservatives a 22-point lead over Labour, enough to give David Cameron a majority of 236 if repeated at a general election.
The poll by ComRes put the Tories on 46 per cent, Labour on 24 per cent and the Liberal Democrats on 18 per cent.