Blair signals cut in unions' conference vote

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Tony Blair gave the clearest signal yesterday that the trade union block vote at Labour conferences will be cut from 70 to 50 per cent before the next general election, allowing him to fight the campaign claiming that party policy is no longer "dominated" by the unions.

Rule changes are likely to be agreed at Labour's National Executive on Wednesday. If approved at this year's conference in Brighton in October they would mean that the votes at the 1996 conference would be split equally between unions and individual members.

In an ITN interview yesterday the Labour leader said the change "could be at this year's party conference. That is something we will be deciding over the next few weeks. I think most people accept that will happen. It is only a question of getting the timing right."

A reduction from the 70 per cent block vote has already been agreed in principle when the party's individual membership exceeded 300,000, which happened late last year. But the size and timing of the cut remain controversial among union leaders, and some of the shadow Cabinet.

Only last Sunday, John Prescott, deputy Labour leader, said on BBC TV that, although the rule change "could go to this year's conference ... you have to give notice of it, and you could probably go to the following year's conference if you've got any proposals for it". He had previously ruled out change this side of a general election.

As the pace of Mr Blair's "revolution" in the Labour Party continued, there remain surprisingly few signs of an internal backlash.

The resolutions from unions and local parties for October's annual conference, published yesterday, do, however, reveal dismay over the softening of Labour's opposition to opted-out schools: 19 motions demand that such schools be restored to local council "control".

But David Hill, the party's spokesman, claimed there is also much backing for the "New Labour" lines on crime and the economy. "There is a remarkable number of motions which run with the theme of the market system in a way that two or three years ago would not have happened," he said.

The main battleground in the economy debate will be the minimum wage, with Harriet Harman, Labour's employment spokeswoman, prepared to argue that the TGWU, GMB and Unison - the party's three largest affiliates - do not have a mandate from their own members to demand that a figure be decided before the next election.

The best-organised backlash against Mr Blair's changes comes in the form of a slew of motions from eight northern constituency parties demanding a directly-elected regional government for the North of England on the same terms as Scotland.

Another controversial demand, which cuts across "New" and "Old" Labour lines, made by four motions, is for a review of the party's two-year-old policy of women-only shortlists for choosing parliamentary candidates in half the party's winnable seats.