Shadow international development minister Ivan Lewis has suggested trade unions were among the "vested interests" Labour should "take on," saying they offered unwanted "sloganising" and "strife."
Shadow minister Lewis made the comments at a well-attended Labour conference fringe meeting following Ed Miliband's leader's speech.
The event was organised by Progress, the "new Labour pressure group" inside the party, where a panel offered first reactions to Miliband's speech.
Lewis set the meeting's tone, praising Miliband's "good speech" but worrying about his lack of emphasis on "fiscal responsibility" and "public-sector reform."
He told delegates that during the last Labour government "we'd become the party of the Establishment and the elite, which Labour should never be," as the party "should always take on vested interests."
The shadow minister asked the meeting: "Are we only willing to take on vested interests we don't like?" suggesting trade unions were one such vested interest.
He attacked the union movement for proposed strikes and protests, saying: "We don't want sloganising, we don't want constant strife and it is very important people are articulating that in trade unions."
Lewis made his comments after fellow panellist Michael Leahy, general secretary of steelworkers' union Community, claimed unions were in danger of "becoming a movement of protest only," saying: "Many of the brothers and sisters are happier in opposition and lack discipline." He denounced discussion of a general strike as "madness."
Leahy's call that union money should be spent on community outreach rather than "having a protest" - presumably a reference to the approaching October 20 TUC demonstration - brought applause and calls of "hear, hear" from the audience.
Lewis was also loudly clapped for saying: "I wish there were more people like Michael speaking on behalf of trade unionists."
The meeting suggested how the hardcore Blairite folk around Progress are responding to Miliband's leadership.
They welcomed Miliband's obvious confidence and command, and clearly felt their politics could fit under the overarching "one nation" slogan.
But they were worried Miliband is not committed enough to spending cuts and "reform" of education, health and welfare.
Shadow Scottish secretary Margaret Curran, perched like her fellow panellists on a barstool in front of some 70 delegates, enthused about Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont's recent high-profile policy speech.
Lamont caused dismay in Labour circles by suggesting Scotland was a "something for nothing country," attacking universal benefits and announcing opposition to the Scottish National Party's free tuition and free prescriptions.
Curran claimed that, whatever the public criticism of the speech, "people have been coming up to Johann in private and congratulating her and saying it is brilliant."
Curran recommended that Labour embrace the "harsh realities" proposed by Lamont, adding: "Things are too cosy in Scotland, and it's time we get real."
Closing the meeting, compere and former Labour MP Lorna Fitzsimmons urged people to join Progress, emphasising the group's need for both support and money.
Progress has been attacked for its seven-figure funding from Lord Sainsbury, but other corporate support has clearly tailed off since Labour left government.
Fitzsimmons said when Labour was in power Progress had "loads of friends, but they were only fair-weather friends."
nShadow Cabinet Office minister Jon Trickett travelled to "one nation" and found a completely different country at a meeting the next day.
Trickett argued at the Unite-sponsored meeting that "the key organising idea, 'one nation,' allows us to develop a fundamental critique of the way neoliberalism works." Trickett told the hundred or so delegates in the "Unite the Union marquee" - a big, smart tent next to the conference centre which is one of the main fringe venues - that "the system that developed under Thatcher and continues to exist" could now be seriously challenged with Labour.
Trickett argued: "'One nation' is a tool we can use to cause a rupture with neoliberalism."
In plainer terms, Trickett argued that as long as people are going hungry, as long as people could be found buying food for their kids in Morrisons while skipping meals themselves, as long as millions of people were working in crap jobs on low pay and casual or temporary contracts while the rich got tax breaks, we are not one nation.
His determination to read a left-wing content into the one nation theme was much more than purely rhetorical.
Trickett is working with Unite and other unions to develop a new layer of union-backed, working-class people ready to stand as Labour parliamentary candidates.
He spoke of the first weekend schools and the new wave of "people of high experience and street cunning" coming forward.
This is part of Unite's broader political strategy, explained at the same meeting by general secretary Len McCluskey.
Unite doesn't want unions to be treated like "the nutty relative in the attic" any more.
The plan to "win back our party for our values" is a broad strategy, not just an attempt to get policies through conference.
The plan includes recruiting trade unionists to the party, getting more MPs from trade union backgrounds and using the new Class think tank to develop policy.
Unite's move to community organising, explained at the meeting by Ellie Mae O'Hagan, works alongside this plan.
McCluskey had a slightly more cautious tone than Trickett, saying that "operating inside the party set-up is not easy."
There is movement inside Labour. Miliband's small step to the left opens space for people wanting to walk a bit further.
"One nation" can mean a nation that looks after the poor. It can also mean know your place. It can mean the people's interest is the national interest. It can also mean sacrifice your pay and conditions to help the national economy "recover." The nation's interests can be defined by the people or the powerful.
The people from Progress, with their shadow minister friends and their money, seem nervous.
The left seems enthused. But maps of the one nation still haven't been drawn. There are at least two "one nations" on offer and a contest over which "one" wins.
Follow Solomon Hughes on Twitter @SolHughesWriter.
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