Blair in new hit on Old Labour

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TONY BLAIR planning to demolish the last bastion of Old Labour by forcing constituency Labour parties to reduce the influence of activists and the trade unions.

The Prime Minister wants local parties to broaden their appeal by scrapping their general committees - the last stronghold of left-wingers in some areas - in favour of all-member discussions on policy and social events. Labour officials believe many new recruits are abandoning the party after becoming disillusioned by tedious, long meetings which pass old-style resolutions.

Mr Blair, who wants local parties to "connect" with their communities, sees the abolition of the general committees as the final part of his Labour modernisation programme, following the introduction of "one member, one vote" ballots and the abolition of Clause IV.

But his plan will be strongly opposed by left-wing activists and some unions, who will see it as a plan further to water down their influence. "He is trying to close down the party, not open it up," one left-winger said.

Labour's National Executive Committee (NEC) will launch a consultation exercise next month about the future of local parties. A report to last week's meeting of the NEC said the review would cover "whether local party structures are suitable for current campaigning demands and whether there is a need to reform and modernise them."

Labour's Millbank headquarters has encouraged constituency parties to experiment by abolishing their general committees. But only a small number have expressed an interest and officials now believe a change to Labour's rules, bringing in a new structure, is the way to secure the reform.

"It's not about neutering anybody, it's about making the party more outgoing and attractive to new members," said a Blair loyalist on the NEC.

Mr Blair will seek to sugar the pill for activists who oppose his change by arguing that all-member meetings would increase grassroots input into Labour policy-making.

However, Mr Blair's critics are sceptical, saying the party has little opportunity to influence government decisions or the manifesto on which Labour will fight the general election. Liz Davies, a left-wing member of the NEC, told Tribune newspaper: "Activists should be aware that the proposal to `reform and modernise' the structures means the abolition of what democratic decision-making there is left in the Labour Party."

John Egan, who has resigned as the Labour official in charge of the party policy-making in the North-west, said the "Partnership in Power" programme, set up by Mr Blair to avoid previous conflict between the party and Labour governments, had not worked. "This is either the consequence of an enormous miscalculation by Millbank, or it was designed to fail. There have been times when it has been difficult to resist the latter interpretation," he wrote in the left-wing journal New Times.