Blair fears Labour rift over economy

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The Independent Online
TONY BLAIR has warned that a dangerous gulf may open up between the Government and the Labour Party as the economy worsens and ministers take unpopular decisions.

At a series of private meetings with Labour MPs and officials, the Prime Minister has urged them to act as "ambassadors" to take the Government's message to the party's grass roots. He believes it is vital to keep the support of Labour activists to avoid losing the backing of the wider electorate.

Mr Blair is worried that growing criticism of "control freakery" by the leadership will turn ordinary party members against his Government.

"At the next elections, the key issue will not be spin doctors or control freaks, but whether the Government appears to have been competent and to have managed the economy well, improved education and health and done something to build a fairer society," he told one meeting. "Any government has to make decisions and it is necessary to say `No' as well as `Yes'. This can lead to difficulties with the government's supporters, unless the government explains those decisions."

Although Mr Blair wanted a "strong dialogue", so that members understood the reasons for "difficult decisions", he warned: "Members must not become so preoccupied with the four things with which they disagree that they lose sight of the 50 things they do agree with, and which would never have happened under a Tory government."

At another session, he appealed to Labour MPs to remain "firm, calm and engaged" while debating the "difficult questions" over the economy, the welfare state and constitutional reform. He admitted that the coming year would be "particularly difficult".

Mr Blair said the party should remember the position it wanted to be in at the next general election: "We must highlight the clear dividing lines between the Conservatives' backward-looking approach and Labour's agenda of combining a high level of social justice with a modern, competitive economy."

He went on: "Everyone at every level in the party needs to drive this message home, maintain confidence and never lose sight of the big picture. Labour MPs have a very important role to play in ensuring this message is got across to the party."

Aides said that Mr Blair was determined to avoid the splits between government and party that bedevilled the Labour administrations of the Sixties and Seventies and the last government under John Major. The Prime Minister will reinforce his campaign at a series of meetings with Labour activists in the new year.

Close allies admit that Mr Blair concedes some mistakes had been made. For example, he accepts there is genuine resentment among grassroots members in Wales at his refusal to support Rhodri Morgan, the Labour backbencher, who is seeking to become the party's candidate for First Secretary in the new Welsh Assembly, after the resignation of Ron Davies. Mr Blair is backing Alun Michael, who succeeded Mr Davies as Secretary of State for Wales.

The Labour Party's backbenchers have been the most rebellious of any government since the end of the Second World War, a new study of Commons voting by Hull University has found. There have been 16 rebellions by 78 MPs in the first session of Parliament.