Blair accused of rejecting working-class supporters

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LABOUR MPs accused Tony Blair yesterday of turning his back on the party's traditional supporters and rejected his claim that Britain was now a middle-class society.

Derek Foster, a former Labour chief whip, said: "Just saying everybody is going to be middle-class and that politics is going to move to them and forget the rest - which is the impression that is given - is a prostitution of the vision which created Labour out of the trade union movement."

Mr Foster, the MP for Bishop Auckland, launched a strong attack on Mr Blair in an interview with the Sunday Sun newspaper in Newcastle. "Tony is not satisfied with the Labour Party. He doesn't like the Labour Party. He doesn't like Labour MPs. He wants a coalition with the Liberals. He wants to forget us," said Mr Foster.

"And, although he talks devolution, he is a centralist, a control freak," Mr Foster added.

He claimed Labour had "lost its grasp of the common thread" adding: "This New Labour Government is not fit to polish the boots of the post-war Labour government."

In a speech last week, Mr Blair said Britain's old establishment was being replaced by "a new, larger, more meritocratic middle-class", including millions who traditionally might see themselves as working- class.

Mr Foster was supported by Dennis Skinner, the Labour MP for Bolsover, and a former miner, who proclaimed his working-class credentials. He warned Mr Blair: "Don't try and give people the impression that we are on the our way to some kind of middle-class Utopia in which everyone is equal."

Although Labour had performed well in middle-class suburbia at the 1997 general election it also needed its traditional supporters, he added.

"All I'm saying to Tony is: don't neglect that working class. Don't make remarks that suggest they are not important or indicate that they're not going to exist." The criticisms came amid a row over a fall in Labour Party membership. Blairites said "Old Labour" members were quitting the party, but left-wingers insistedthat "New Labour" supporters, attracted by Mr Blair, had already walked away.

Today, Labour's National Executive will be told that party membership dropped from 405,238 to 391,771 in the 12 months to December. It is a smaller fall than previously reported but it is still a setback to Mr Blair's hopes of recruiting 500,000 members. Labour attracted 40,859 new recruits in the past year, down from 54,914 in the previous 12 months, but the retention rate rose to 87 per cent. Some 60 per cent of Labour members are men and 40 per cent are women.

After paying off a pounds 4.5m deficit from the last general election, Labour will now launch a recruitment drive. Officials say the biggest cause of losing members is through people moving house, so they will redouble their efforts to persuade them to pay their subscriptions by direct debit.

Meanwhile, Labour has rejected claims of "cronyism" in the selection of candidates for the May elections to the Scottish Parliament. Mr Blair's critics claimed that the party's selection board had given leading New Labour figures top placings on the regional lists, which will provide the members chosen through proportional representation.

t Jack Cunningham, the Minister for the Cabinet Office, is facing a Parliamentary inquiry into claims that he took trips on Concorde and stayed at five-star hotels at the taxpayers' expense.

Many of the trips detailed in a Sunday newspaper took place before Mr Cunningham moved to his present job from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food last July.

The complaint is being lodged by Tim Yeo, the Conservative agriculture spokesman.

Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, said he would not comment on the veracity of such reports but any complaint would be investigated.