Focus: It could be a week when Blair needs his friends

At last year's Labour conference, Tony Blair was everybody's darling. This year, he will face a less adulatory reception. Cracks are showing in New Labour's carefully programmed image, and tough negotiations loom over public sector pay, 'plots' to centralise power and, bitterest issue of all, electoral reform

TONY BLAIR wrote to every member of the Cabinet last week, warning them about the Labour Party conference. There were the usual comments about tough choices, rights and responsibilities, respect for others. He told them the "Tories did not just lose the election, they lost the battle for ideas". He even acknowledged several ministers' concerns about the economy by saying the difficult decisions would eventually reap "benefits for all".

But at the end, just when John Prescott, Gordon Brown and Margaret Beckett might have been snoozing into their cornflakes, the Prime Minister turned to Blackpool. "The party," he wrote sternly, "is essential for our success and I want to work with the party to change Britain." The message was clear - however much you want to, you can't ignore the grassroots activists. It was a tacit acknowledgement that, after 16 months in power, dissent is beginning to show and that the next few days are not going to be easy. On the surface, this Labour conference is the whizziest and most carefully controlled.

The platform from which Mr Blair will address delegates is ultra- modern, backed by a mosaic of constantly changing, multi-coloured images of "new Britain". The lectern is made not of boring old wood, but of trendy Terence Conran-style glass. There are few "fraternal greetings" from trade unions in the conference brochure, but loads of glossy corporate ads which have helped make this gathering the most profitable ever.

It is all beautifully New Labour, but underneath the cracks are beginning to show. Last year, Mr Blair strode into the conference to hear delegates chanting, "things can only get better"; this time as he drives down the Blackpool promenade, past the lights and the fairground attractions, he knows he is heading for a roller-coaster ride. Downing Street is already preparing the ground. "It was a real jamboree last year," an adviser said. "This year will be different. It's not designed to have lots of razzmatazz. It's sleeves rolled up, down to work. Of course, there will be debates - once you start getting on with the business of government people disagree."

The problems may start today, when Blair faces a question-and-answer session with his party members. Millbank Tower insists that the questions have not been vetted, but it remains to be seen how much free-thinking takes place. Over the week, proportional representation, the shelving of transport improvements and public sector pay will be the topics subject to the most vocal rows. But the real source of resentment among local activists is what they perceive as the attempt to centralise power.

The results of the election to the ruling National Executive Committee, to be announced on Wednesday, will be the focus of this frustration. The Blair circle now acknowledges that three or four left-wingers are likely to be elected - despite the vigorous campaign by the modernisers to keep them out.

Mark Seddon, the editor of Tribune, is almost certain to get on, and is rumoured to have been supported by several Cabinet ministers including Robin Cook, Gordon Brown and Margaret Beckett. He is a serious player who undermined the Blairites' attempt to discredit the Grassroots Alliance, as the left-wing slate was known. But the individuals do not really matter - the result will be a bid for independence from the ordinary members who refuse to obey instructions from the centre, a victory for free-thinking over pager mentality.

MANY taking the train to Blackpool argue that the leadership's attempt to control dissent - for example, by closing certain sessions to the media - will in fact emphasise splits. "The left will just spill out on to the fringes," one activist said. The fiercest heat will probably be generated by the proportional representation debate on Thursday. Lord Jenkins has completed his report on reform of the voting system and agreed to hold over its publication until after the Labour conference. But his attempt to head off confrontation appears to have failed.

It became clear when Labour's Conference Arrangements Committee met last Wednesday that this was going to be a problem. Of the 150 motions put to conference by local constituencies, 23 - by far the largest single group - were about electoral reform, and they were overwhelmingly negative. Crucially, most of the unions, who have a wide array of votes behind them, back keeping the first-past-the-post system.

One, the AEEU, has been so well organised that nearly all the motions submitted by the grassroots follow its proposed format. Its survey of constituency chairmen found that nearly three-quarters oppose PR and more than 70 per cent described the system likely to be commended by Lord Jenkins is "flawed".

More importantly, ministers will be lining up on opposite sides of the argument this week. Tomorrow lunchtime Derek Fatchett, the Foreign Office minister, and John Spellar, the Defence minister, will argue against PR in the Washington Suite of the Imperial Hotel. A few hundred yards away that evening, in the Rostria, Mr Fatchett's boss, Robin Cook, and Mo Mowlam, the Northern Ireland Secretary, will be putting the case for reform. This is also something that defies the usual left-right barriers. Dennis Skinner, the arch old Labourite, will be speaking on the same side as the moderniser, Helen Brinton.

OPPOSITION been strengthened among many ordinary Labour members by the involvement of Lord Jenkins, who left the party to found the SDP. "A traitor," said one. "We'll oppose anything he recommends." It has been further fuelled by Paddy Ashdown's speech to the Liberal Democrat conference last week in which he threw down the gauntlet to Blair. "That man is like a fly buzzing around your head and needs to be swatted away," one minister said. "The idea that this pimple on the body politic is telling us how to run the country is a joke."

And there are growing indications that Blair agrees that Paddy's demands on PR are getting tiresome. The PM's allies say he is secretly pleased that opposition to reform is growing in his party because it will make it easier for him to disappoint the Liberal Democrats. Yesterday he invited Ken Jackson, leader of the AEEU which is spearheading the campaign against PR, to his suite at Blackpool's Stakis Hotel. He let it be known that he was "relaxed" about the idea of conference voting against changing the voting system.

Those on both sides of the argument now privately acknowledge that Blair is "cooling" towards electoral reform. The most influential members of his Cabinet - Brown, Prescott, Straw - are instinctively opposed to it; the Prime Minister himself has said consistently he is "not persuaded" of the case for change.

It is becoming increasingly unlikely that there will be a referendum this side of the election - Labour's manifesto included a commitment to hold such a ballot, but the party is now avidly pointing out that it did not specify when. "Blair doesn't want to change the system; he's got nothing to gain from it and everything to lose," one MP said. A vote would simply highlight fundamental splits. "It's our version of the Tories and the single currency," one politician said.

If Blair simply delays the vote, the Liberal Democrats would be kept hanging loyally on until the next Parliament - but even then they might not get their wish granted. "It won't happen - not in the foreseeable future," a minister said. "He'll kick it into the long grass and not hold a referendum until after the election," another member of the Government added."

In fact, a party row about the issue is just what the Prime Minister needs to get this political football kicked into the next door garden.

In his speech to the conference on Tuesday, Blair will confront opposition to his policies in the Labour Party, telling the activists that they must be prepared to modernise. "We will show the same resolution in changing the country as we did in changing the party," he will say.

He will warn that there are tough choices ahead on health, education and welfare - and decisions that the Labour rank and file will not like. He will acknowledge that there is resentment among some members about the pace of change and the refusal to redistribute wealth. This week will show that there are differences between the leadership and the activists. But on PR, dissent is proving rather useful. This is one area in which it could suit the Prime Minister - as he told his Cabinet - "to work with the party".

people'It can last and it's terrifying'
Danny Welbeck's Manchester United future is in doubt
footballGunners confirm signing from Manchester United
footballStriker has moved on loan for the remainder of the season
people Emma Watson addresses celebrity nude photo leak
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
footballFeaturing Bart Simpson
Katie Hopkins appearing on 'This Morning' after she purposefully put on 4 stone.
peopleKatie Hopkins breaks down in tears over weight gain challenge
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman topped the list of the 30 most influential females in broadcasting
Kelly Brook
peopleA spokesperson said the support group was 'extremely disappointed'
Life and Style
techIf those brochure kitchens look a little too perfect to be true, well, that’s probably because they are
Andy Murray celebrates a shot while playing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
TennisWin sets up blockbuster US Open quarter-final against Djokovic
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
booksRiddling trilogy could net you $3m
Arts and Entertainment
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand performs live
music Pro-independence show to take place four days before vote
news Video - hailed as 'most original' since Benedict Cumberbatch's
Life and Style
The longer David Sedaris had his Fitbit, the further afield his walks took him through the West Sussex countryside
lifeDavid Sedaris: What I learnt from my fitness tracker about the world
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    SharePoint Engineer - Bishop's Stortford

    £30000 - £35000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organ...

    Planning Manager (Training, Learning and Development) - London

    £35000 - £38000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glob...

    SEN Teaching Assistant

    £50 - £70 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Are you a Teaching Assistant...

    Year 5 Teacher

    Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: Randstad Education Ltd are seeking KS...

    Day In a Page

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering