Blair reforms face open revolt

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The Independent Online
Grassroots anger over Tony Blair's radical plan to complete the party's modernisation will dominate Labour's autumn conference.

A massive 111 motions on the subject have been submitted for debate at this October's conference. For every one in favour, a further 10 are critical.

The motions, due to be published on Friday, are the first public indication of the strength of feeling in the Labour Party about the proposals, which officials hope will neutralise internal strife and side line left-wing activities.

As The Independent reported last week, many constituencies are expected to call for a year's delay after a consultation exercise which ends this week. The party leadership is determined to press ahead even if that means it must face conflict at Brighton.

Senior figures have already accepted that they will have to water down their plans if they are to have a hope of persuading the conference to pass them. They have begun negotiating with the big unions, which are largely hostile, in order to work out a compromise deal.

Among the measures causing the greatest dissent are plans to turn the Labour Party Conference into a "showcase" at which ministers present their policies - a move meant to put an end to regular autumn rows and to make the event more like the Conservatives' former gatherings.

There is also unhappiness about proposals which would almost certainly remove left-wing MPs, such as Dennis Skinner and Diane Abbott, from the party's ruling National Executive Committee. In future, the committee would have a duty to support the government and could not be beset by the conflict which marred its operation during the Labour administration of the 1970s.

In addition to the reforms of conference and the NEC, the draft document, circulated in February, contains proposals for regional "policy forums" and for Labour to build up a mass membership. No constitutional issue has caused such an avalanche of hostile responses in modern times. The largest number submitted in recent years was 60, on selection procedures for MPs in 1977. Of a total of 570 motions on different subjects this year, almost one in five is on the "Labour into Power" project. Of those, 44 called for it to be delayed for a year, 27 object to the ending of local party's right to submit motions to conference and a further 29 make a variety of different complaints. Even the Labour Students, who are usually supportive of Tony Blair, have called for postponement.

Party officials now have until late July to make amendments to their document before a final version is put to the NEC. Members will then be sent a revised version which will be voted on at the conference.

Although few MPs will talk on the record about the plans, one opponent said: "The leadership is in deep trouble. This will be the biggest single issue at this year's conference and it is hugely unpopular with the constituencies. It would only take a medium-sized union to join them for it to be defeated."

Most Labour frontbenchers believe the plans are vital, though, arguing that they cannot be delayed because they will take two years to implement and could fall victim to the next general election campaign.

"There is a genuine desire to make sure this thing works for all sections of the party. Nobody wants a massive defeat at our first conference in government," one source said.

The three biggest union affiliates, the GMB, the TGWU and Unison, which together account for more than one third of the votes at conference, are particularly angry about the plans to deprive them of the ability to table motions outside an agenda set by the party's policy committee.

All three unions are putting pressure on the Labour leadership to make changes to the document.