NEWS FOCUS: Managers could be caught between NHS staff angered at increased private input into the NHS and the government. Tash Shifrin reports from Unison's conference in Brighton.

There is a widespread worry about people waving their private parts around in public places. On stretches of Brighton beach, sunbathers in various states of undress are more laid back about that sort of thing. But inside the Brighton conference centre, where public sector union Unison was holding its annual conference last week, it was a different matter.

The government's refusal to keep those private bits out of public services, and particularly the impact of the private finance initiative, were the source of anger and bitterness among delegates.

That anger and a shift into confrontation with Labour over PFI were the defining themes of the conference. In a strikingly upbeat mood, the delegates felt it was 'clear that the argument against privatisation has been won' with the public - one resolution passed last week said as much.

It looks set to face health service managers with a familiar dilemma. Urged by the government into more use of PFI, they run the risk of fronting a policy that is increasingly unpopular with the public and a recipe for conflict with the workforce.

The mood was clear on the first day, when local government and transport secretary Stephen Byers was jeered during his speech.

'We are not about to embark on a wholesale privatisation of public services. But we do believe that it is right to consider the part that the private sector can play in delivering high-quality public services.

'To rule out such consideration would allow political dogma to triumph over the interests of the public, ' he declared.

This was not conciliatory enough. There was a burst of applause - not for Mr Byers, but for protesting delegates holding up placards to spell out 'No more privatisation'.

Dave Prentis, in his first conference speech as Unison general secretary, spoke later and pointedly. 'The truth is that there are some people in government who cannot get rid of their Thatcherite obsession with privatisation. They are the wreckers and the forces of conservatism, not us. '

He told delegates that the PFI pilot schemes that will allow ancillary service staff to remain NHS employees, announced last week, had followed 'weeks of discussion with ministers' in which he had threatened to bring staff at all 29 PFI hospitals out on strike.

That was fighting talk. It wasn't matched by TUC general secretary John Monks, who might have had a better response to his nowthe-Tories-are gone comedy routine had he been on the end of Brighton pier.

In a speech possibly left over from 1997, he repeatedly emphasised what a 'great victory' Labour had won on 7 June. To the already disillusioned delegates, this was missing the point. He expressed worry at 'creeping privatisation' but pledged: 'We will not be put in a box marked, 'TUC against the private sector'. '

The conference had already voted unanimously for a resolution on public services, accusing the government of being 'dishonest' in its 'claim that it supports public services when It is pursuing a pro-privatisation agenda'.

And Mr Prentis, speaking for the resolution, was firm. 'We reject further privatisation of our members. '

He warned the government: 'Do not spend the next two years in conflict with us over privatisation - a failed Tory policy. '

A further hint of how serious the breach with Labour could become came when Dudley Group of Hospitals delegate - and recent striker - Hazel Priest made an impassioned speech urging the union to withhold support from the party if it did not stop PFI.

'We expected to stay public when Labour got in. Tony Blair to me, in my eyes, is no socialist because he has transferred me to the private sector on 1 July. '

Opposing the move for the national executive committee, Jean Geldart said: 'There are a lot of people here, and I am one, who didn't vote Labour at the last election, for the first time in my life. '

But she urged delegates to reject the proposal. The motion fell, but a later resolution to review how Unison's affiliated political fund - from which donations are made to Labour - and its general political fund are used, was carried with a 91,800 majority.

The shift of Unison's leadership to a more confrontational stance was shown when it dropped initial opposition to a resolution calling for a national day of action and demonstration against PFI.

Nationally co-ordinated action has been a demand of branches at the forefront of the battle against PFI, who have been frustrated at having to strike in isolation.

Labour now faces the prospect of a more unified battle over PFI, and a threat to its finances as Britain's biggest union rethinks its bankrolling position.

Yet the government is intent on further public-private partnerships, a concordat with private care-home owners and private involvement in treatment and diagnostic centres.

NHS managers could find themselves, uncomfortably, in the middle.