Blair vows to cut class sizes

r Left forces rail renationalisation pledge r Contract with Britain on jobs and education
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The Independent Online
TONY BLAIR, the Labour leader, will this week offer a list of policy guarantees, including pledges to cut class sizes in schools and spend pounds 1bn on job creation for young people, as part of an American-style deal with the voters.

In a party conference speech which will echo Newt Gingrich's "Contract with America", the Labour leader will deride the Conservatives for their broken promises, and undertake to deliver clear and achievable objectives if elected to power.

But there were clear signs yesterday that the party's left wing was flexing its muscles when the Labour leader was forced to make a firm pledge to renationalise British Rail "as soon as possible" if Government privatisation plans go ahead.

Mr Blair's first renationalisation commitment came at the end of a day of hard bargaining over policy resolutions to be put to the Labour Party conference in Brighton this week.

Other embarrassments looming this week include possible rebellions over the party's policy on grant-maintained schools, and pressure to attach a figure to the national minimum wage.

In his speech on Tuesday Mr Blair will pledge that all children between five and seven will be taught in classes of fewer than 30. That will affect an estimated 400,000 of the 1.2 million children in that age group, at an estimated cost of up to pounds 36m.

This emerged as between 8,000 and 10,000 children, parents and teachers marched through central London yesterday to protest at the rise in class sizes. Labour refused to confirm the cost of meeting the promise, but promised to show how it would be funded on Tuesday.

As part of a drive to raise standards, the Labour leader will promise tests to assess children as they enter schools. Such "diagnostic" tests have been piloted in Birmingham. Other plans include a national register for head teachers, ensuring that only those with proven skills can be appointed, and an early move to broaden A-levels.

The Shadow Chancellor, Gordon Brown, will pinpoint the young unemployed as leading beneficiaries of his proposed pounds 3bn windfall tax on the privatised utilities. One billion pounds will be diverted their way. Mr Brown will promise that "every department of Government will under Labour be put to work to end the waste and neglect of unemployment".

In Mr Blair's set-piece speech - described by aides as a "wake-up call for Britain" - he will also promise to harness the Internet for education.

Other initiatives will include help for single parents to get back to work through increased childcare provision.

However, after a fractious summer for Labour, Mr Blair will face more dissent than at last year's conference in Blackpool.

The first taste of that emerged when Mr Blair headed off a rebellion over rail renationalisation at a meeting yesterday by accepting a composite of 30 resolutions tabled by constituency parties and the transport unions. Asked afterwards how much of BR would be returned to the public sector, a spokesman said: "The whole of it."

Mr Blair's aides said he was "comfortable" with the proposal which is certain to be overwhelmingly supported by delegates on Thursday. It was consistent with his support for a "publicly owned, publicly accountable" railway. One said: "It does not mean we sit down on day one and produce money for renationalisation. It is all about priorities and the timing."

However, officials admitted that the policy declaration was a considerable hardening of the party's position. It also emerged that the Shadow Cabinet's plans spelling out the technicalities of how the rail industry will be brought back into public ownership have been put on ice until the middle of next year at the earliest.

On education, a proposal that Labour should abolish grant-maintained schools (of the kind Mr Blair's son Euan is now attending) will be put to delegates. There is simmering discontent here but conference managers will try to block the move on the basis that it is at odds with Labour's recently published policy document, Diversity and Excellence.

Mr Blair also faces criticism from Roy Hattersley, the former deputy leader, over the party's limited plans to change the control of grant- maintained schools.

Some trade unions will back calls for a national minimum wage to be set at pounds 4.15 an hour, which they say is half male median earning. Mr Blair, who wants to go into the election without a figure being specified, is expected to ignore the ruling if it is carried.

In the election for Labour's ruling national executive, Jack Straw, the shadow home secretary, is expected to lose his place when the votes are counted tomorrow. But the political balance of the NEC will be sustained by the election for the first time of Marjorie Mowlem, the front- bench party spokesman on Northern Ireland.

The case of Liz Davies, the Islington lawyer ousted from her nomination for the Leeds North East seat last week, is now not likely to be debated.