Blair hits back at Clause IV rebels

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Tony Blair, the Labour leader, last night responded to the increasingly public left-wing opposition to a new Clause IV by challenging the party to wake up to the fact that it was not a "preservation society".

In a fighting passage in a speech to businessmen last night, Mr Blair was scathing about the MEPs who had attempted to overshadow his visit to Brussels, and bluntly warned that the party would not win public trust unless "we as a party that preaches change to others is prepared to embrace change for itself".

Mr Blair threw down the gauntlet to opponents of the fundamental change he plans to the party's 77-year-old constitution and declared: "Those who seriously believe we cannot improve on words written for the world of 1918 when we are now in 1995 are not learning from our history but merely living in it."

Mr Blair, who insisted before the dinner in Brussels last night that he was "absolutely confident" of winning a majority at the special party conference on 29 April, went out of his way to demonstrate his determination to campaign for the change amid signs of disarray among the MEPs who appeared as signatories to a hostile advertisement in yesterday's Guardian.

At the same time, the traditionalist and hard-left campaign against the change - aimed at persuading unions and constituencies to stand by the Clause - was launched at a news conference attended by Tony Benn, the veteran MP for Chesterfield and Jim Mortimer, the former general secretary of the Labour Party. Left-wing opponents are expected to cite Mr Blair's refusal to pledge renationalisation of British Rail as an argument for preserving the old clause.

Mr Blair referred directly to the MEPs - 32 of whom signed the orginal advertisement reproduced yesterday - by pointing out that while he welcomed debate "not everyone will have the privilege, let alone the means, to publicise their views through means of paid-for advertisements on the front page of national newspapers".

The tensions within the British Labour group in the European Parliament were exposed when one of their number, Alan Donnelly, first defended the advertisement then denounced it in a letter to his colleague, Alex Falconer, who placed it in the newspaper. He was joined by two other colleagues.

In Westminster even some MPs strongly supportive of the leadership acknowledged varying degrees of opposition within their constituency parties while the Labour leadership took issue with a pre-Christmas poll of constituency parties carried out by Tribune that suggested 60 out of 62 parties were opposed to change.

In the trade unions, the right believes that when the "chips are down" the union block vote will swing behind Tony Blair. But left-wingers claim the party has moved so far to the right that moderate union activists find themselves in agreement with theirmore radical colleagues.

Lew Adams, of the traditionally left-wing train drivers' union Aslef, made it clear he could not support Mr Blair's proposition.

"My union has written into its constitution that we should aim for a socialist society which actually does believe in public ownership of railways and other utilities.

"So I can't support him, couldn't trade off and my heart is with Clause IV. No deals, no promises, we want to retain Clause IV."

Left-wing warning, page 8

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