Barbecue Man is defecting from Blair's local party

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The Independent Online
LABOUR PARTY membership is falling in Tony Blair's back yard. His Sedgefield constituency party, which attracted more than 2,000 members after replacing boring meetings with barbecues, is struggling to persuade many of them to renew their subscriptions.

Officials in Labour's north-east region say that up to one-third of the members in Mr Blair's constituency could find their membership has lapsed unless they pay their pounds 15 annual fee soon. In an attempt to spare his blushes, a door-to-door recruitment blitz is to be launched urgently.

Labour sources denied that people were resigning because they disapproved of the Government's policies and said Sedgefield's experience was repeated across the country.

"The main problem is apathy. People think they did their bit by getting rid of the Tories," one official said.

The fall in Sedgefield's membership is an embarrassment because, after Mr Blair became the local MP in 1983, it became the new model constituency party. Membership soared from 600 to more than 2,000 after long- winded debates about socialism were replaced by social events. Phil Wilson, the membership secretary, was so successful that he was promoted to national headquarters.

John Burton, Mr Blair's constituency agent and a close ally, said yesterday that membership had dropped to 1,800, but said this was partly due to boundary changes, which took effect at the 1997 general election. He was confident that "99 per cent" of the membership would renew their subscriptions. "We are guilty of resting on our laurels; we have got to get out fingers out," he said. "But there has been no mass exodus. When you knock on doors, people renew and that is what we must now do."

Labour's national membership dropped from 405,200 to 391,700 in the 12 months to December, although retention had risen. Officials say the biggest loss is caused by members moving house, and are redoubling their efforts to persuade people to pay by direct debit. The proportion doing so rose from 34 per cent to 39 per cent last year.