Blair to put manifesto to party vote

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Political Editor

Tony Blair yesterday took the Labour Party and its opponents by surprise by unveiling a plan to put the basics of his election manifesto to an autumn referendum of all 400,000 Labour members, eclipsing the union block vote at the party conference.

The initiative, which senior party figures believe will be as effective in mobilising the party's mass membership as the campaign to replace Clause IV, is designed to secure backing for fresh policy changes and constitutional reforms intended to minimise conflict between the party and a Labour government.

The new process, the leadership argues, will allow the party openly to set credible priorities for government, in contrast to the policy overload of previous incoming Labour administrations. Foreshadowing a "prudent" rather than a "cautious" manifesto, Mr Blair said: "I would rather be rejected by the people for not promising enough than win their support on false promises, only then to lose their trust."

The party will publish a document in June, put it to the conference in October and then to a full national ballot of the entire membership. The final version of the manifesto would be drawn up nearer the election - but on lines already approved by the party's members.

The new manifesto-making process, was approved by 22 to 2 votes at yesterday's national executive meeting, despite union anguish and the opposition of the left-wingers Dennis Skinner and Diane Abbott.Around a dozen members of Labour's National Executive Committee also expressed some reservations over the ballot proposal, which follows a rule change passed at last year's conference, providing for ballots of the entire membership when the leadership sees fit.

It could therefore pave the way for future plebiscites of the entire membership, over the heads of union leaders and activists, if the conference and executive repeat their attempts to thwart previous Labour prime ministers.

The first of a new series of policy proposals, to be completed by June and put to the conference and then to a ballot of members, will be unveiled today by David Blunkett, Labour's education and employment spokesman. It will replace the party's old commitment to a training levy with a new pounds 150m "learn-as-you-earn" scheme.

'Learn-as-you-earn', page 9

Tory grass roots, page 9

Andrew Marr, page 19