Blair freezes out activists

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The Independent Online
Fran Abrams

Political Correspondent

Labour is preparing to cut trade unionists and other activists out of policy-making by dismantling the constituency parties which are their power-base.

In a fundamental reform which will remove the main building blocks of the party's grass-roots organisation, the party's leadership is planning to sweep away a system which has existed for more than half a century. The scheme could plunge a newly elected Labour government into a Clause IV-style battle only weeks after it comes to power. However, Tony Blair is believed to be determined to press ahead with plans to push "One Member One Vote" right to the heart of the party.

The scheme is likely to be published in May or June, and left-wingers are already preparing for a fierce struggle over it at this year's conference. They fear it would allow a Labour government to push through policies which they would never have accepted, such as a complete break with the unions.

Under plans to be presented early this year to review groups headed by the party chairman, Tom Sawyer, unions and other affiliated groups, such as the Fabians or the Co-operative movement, would lose their links with Labour's grass roots.

General management committees, which run constituencies, select candidates and send motions to conference, would be replaced by a small executive of four or five people elected through OMOV, he said. This group would draw up shortlists of candidates from an approved Walworth Road list for party members to vote on. Members of unions and other groups would only be able to vote if they were Labour Party members.

The review groups are also likely to recommend sweeping changes to Labour's annual conference and its National Executive Committee, both of which have seen embarrassing show-downs with left-wingers.

Already, a new code of conduct has been imposed on Labour MPs, prohibiting them from bringing the party into disrepute. There have been hints that the new code, passed last month by the Parliamentary Labour Party, could be used to discipline MPs who consistently criticise the leadership.

Ken Livingstone, Labour MP for Brent East, has warned that the measures could plunge the party into internal strife just as it takes power. "It would be madness. There would be massive opposition from a large number of MPs, activists and trades unionists," he said.

The plans originate from the Labour Co-ordinating Committee, an influential group which claims to have been instrumental in securing "One Member One Vote" (OMOV) and the abolition of Clause IV.

It has already published an interim report, New Labour: A Stake-holders' Party, which sets out its views. Ben Lucas, the chair of the committee, argued that power in the party should be given to individual members. The committee, whose members include Labour's home affairs spokesman, Jack Straw, and the foreign affairs spokesman, Robin Cook, wants policy to made through regional and national forums on specific issues. Each member should vote on it, it says.

The document argues that the National Executive Committee should no longer make policy and that the annual conference should mirror the US party conventions as showcases which do not "leave things to chance". In future, there should be no more "boring but potentially damaging debates about arcane resolutions". Last year's conference was split by a row over pensions involving the former minister Barbara Castle.

Mr Lucas said the Labour Party had been built "almost on a Soviet model". Activists who wanted to get things done should pursue issues through other groups, he suggested.

"If you are interested in what trades unions are doing then go along to your local trades union. If you are interested in environmental issues, then form a group on the environment."

A Labour spokeswoman said the party had nothing to say about the review and no conclusions had yet been reached.