Blair forgives the SDP defectors

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A BIG effort was under way last night to secure a conference victory for Tony Blair today which would guarantee success for his plans for fundamental changes to the aims and objects of the Labour Party's constitution.

The Labour leadership brought intense pressure on the Glasgow Maryhill constituency not to press a resolution reaffirming support for the party's 76-year-old Clause IV only 48 hours after the Labour leader made clear he was determined to replace it.

Mr Blair received fresh support in fighting off the resolution from the GMB union last night. But if the resolution is approved today, it will be a public embarrassment for the leadership despite increasing certainty within the party that Mr Blair will succeed in replacing Clause IV at next year's conference.

However, a leadership victory on the issue would provide clear proof a week before the Tory conference that Mr Blair will get the modernised statement of the party's aims that he wants.

Earlier, Mr Blair made it clear he would welcome Social Democrat defectors back into the Labour Party.

The Labour leader, asked if there was a place in the modernised Labour Party for the leaders of the SDP breakaway in 1981, stressed that he was not going to talk about individuals, but added: 'Of course I welcome back those people who left the Labour Party in the early 1980s for reasons that were understandable at the time. The Labour Party went through a bad period then.'

His remarks came as Labour's national executive agreed a pre-Christmas timetable for the drafting of a new statement of the party's objectives. The statement will then be put out to consultation in advance of next year's annual conference, which will approve a new Clause IV.

The statement is likely to emphasise economic efficiency and social justice as well as a commitment to public ownership in some areas of the economy. It will also address the values of social and individual responsibility and opportunity that were emphasised in Mr Blair's speech on Tuesday.

The declaration by Mr Blair, who said he could also imagine areas in which the party might engage in a 'dialogue of ideas' with the Liberal Democrats, was seen as more evidence of the rapid change in the party's positioning.

It became clear last night that Mr Blair's deputy, John Prescott, will be closely involved in drafting the new Clause IV.

Mr Blair said last night: 'We are not actually changing the heart of the Labour Party. What we are trying to do is to ensure the values and principles of the party are relevant to today's world.'

In an interview on Channel 4 news he also highlighted constitutional reform, including a Bill of Rights; a freedom of information Act, an end to voting by hereditary peers and measures to help the young unemployed as likely first-year measures by a Labour government.

As speculation began about the November reshuffle of the shadow Cabinet, with Robin Cook being suggested as a possible shadow Foreign Secretary and Jack Straw as a possible candidate for the Home Office brief vacated by Mr Blair, it emerged that the Labour leader will shortly appoint Bruce Grocott, MP for the Wrekin, as his Parliamentary Private Secretary.

Blackpool reports, pages 4, 5

Leading article, page 17

Labour's new values, page 18