Blair facing defeat by Left over pensions

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TONY BLAIR is heading for an embarrassing defeat at the hands of grassroots Labour party members over his plans to radically reform the welfare state.

Members of Labour's influential National Policy Forum are to force a vote today on the party's policy on pensions.

The Labour left wants the Government to restore the link between pensions and average earnings which would lead to a bill of pounds 30bn a year by 2030.

Last night ministers were in eleventh hour talks with rebels to try to persuade them to drop the radical amendment. Alistair Darling, Social Security Secretary, was offering a nationwide debate on the future of welfare reform to try to stave off a vote on pensions. But the delegates want pensions to be debated at this year's party conference.

Only 25 per cent of the 170 strong National Policy forum need to vote in favour today for the issue to go to a vote at this year's Labour conference.

Labour insiders say the PM wants to avoid a public row over welfare which could open up old divisions in the party and destroy the image of unity. "We don't want a slanging match at conference like in the old days," said one member of the Policy Forum.

Ministers are keen to be seen to be consulting the grassroots on welfare moves following a massive rebellion, earlier this year, of backbench Labour MPs over plans to cut disability payments and benefits for asylum seekers.

Ministers were yesterday reassuring party activists that their changes to pension policy, announced earlier this year, have led to better standard of living for most pensioners.

But the Left is unlikely to abandon the policy advocated by Baroness Castle, who has been leading the fight for a restoration of the link between pensions and average earnings.