Blair acts to curb activists' power

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The Independent Online
JOHN RENTOUL

and DONALD MACINTYRE

The pace of Tony Blair's relentless modernisation of the Labour Party will accelerate again this morning when the leadership takes powers for the first time to call one member, one vote ballots on key questions of policy and organisation.

Delegates will be asked today to approve rule changes designed to reinforce the power of ordinary members at the expense of activists and could allow the leadership to by-pass the annual conference on controversial issues.

The move follows the decisive swing by delegates yesterday behind the leadership on the economy when Gordon Brown, the Shadow Chancellor, made a deftly-timed call for a cut in VAT on fuel.

Mr Brown sought to define the boundaries between Labour and Tory tax policy by pledging to make a pounds 480m cut in VAT a manifesto priority if the Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke, failed to answer his challenge by reducing it in his November budget.

The Shadow Chancellor reinforced his authority over economic policy in a speech which promised a pounds 1.4bn programme on youth employment, the plan to cut fuel VAT to the EU minimum of 5 per cent and claimed the "real divide" was between "unfairness" under the Tories and "fair progressive taxation" under Labour.

The leadership was handsomely rewarded when two left-inspired motions, one calling for a specific minimum wage level of pounds 4.15 an hour, and another from the TGWU with a long shopping list of reflationary demands were not even pressed to a vote, while a third calling for renationalisation of the utilities was heavily defeated.

And last night the National Executive Committee's modernising majority was left intact when the only significant change in annual election results was the replacement of Jack Straw, shadow Home Secretary, by Marjorie Mowlam, shadow Northern Ireland Secretary.

The largely overlooked rule changes to be debated in Brighton today will provoke criticism from the left that they allow the leadership to go directly over the heads of the conference, but party managers are confident the amendments will be approved.

The provision for ballots of all members was condemned yesterday by left- wing critics of the leadership as a move to by-pass the annual conference, which is formally the party's sovereign policy-making body. The NEC proposes a new clause giving it "the power to require constituency parties to hold ballots of individual members on such matters as they deem to be appropriate".

National Executive proposals say the new clause is "to clarify the existing practice of the NEC on the holding of consultative ballots", although the word "consultative" does not appear in the new clause - giving rise to fears on the left, and hopes among some modernisers - that Mr Blair's ultimate aim is to by-pass the union block vote which will still retains half of conference votes.

The amendments write into the Labour rulebook a requirement on local parties to conduct meetings and events in a "friendly and orderly manner". They will also put the party headquarters directly in charge of recruitment and give the general secretary, Tom Sawyer, greater authority in enforcing discipline.

Mr Brown was robust in warning that there would be no "pay explosion" under Labour and that inflation and spending would remain firmly under control. He told delegates: "The war against inflation is a Labour war and essential part of our battle against insecurity and unemployment."

The conference successes on the economy came as Mr Blair prepared his keynote speech today pledging that the "task of a new generation is to rebuild a new Britain".

But a dissenting note was sounded at a fringe meeting yesterday by Roy Hattersley, former deputy leader of the party: "I hope in a new world of a new Labour government we can improve pensions, extend child benefit, put the country back to work, build the houses - without any penalty for the BMW owners. But I have my doubts."

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