Defiant activists to fight Blair on reforms

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Tony Blair is facing his first big challenge from his own party since he came to power. The Labour leader will clash with up to half of the party's constituencies over the next phase of his modernisation project.

Party leaders are determined to press ahead with proposals designed to sideline Labour's left wing and to neuter internal strife, despite calls for them to be postponed. The decision will cause a row at this autumn's conference, marring planned victory celebrations.

Both local parties and trades unions will oppose moves to push the plans through this year, and will try to stall them until late1998. Party officials believe that, if this succeeds, part of the two-year programme could be lost in the run-up to the next general election.

After weeks of Conservative agonising over the effectiveness of Labour's modernising project, news of the divisions will be particularly irksome to the Government.

The dissent has arisen over the "Labour into Power" project, on which local parties and unions have until the end of next week to comment.

The project aims to prevent a recurrence of the rows which beset the Labour government in the 1970s. If it goes ahead, it will remove left- wingers from the National Executive Committee and place the onus on committee members to support the Government.

Ministers will be put formally at the head of the policy-making process, through a new high-level Joint Policy Committee, chaired by Tony Blair and John Prescott. Conference rows will be averted by making the event mainly a "showcase" for policies, rather than a genuine debating chamber.

Key decisions will take place in regional "policy forums" designed to attract members outside the band of activists which dominated policy-making in the past. The party will also continue its push for new members - a move partly aimed at marginalising the stalwarts of the left.

"These measures are taking the `One Member One Vote' reforms right to the heart of the party," one enthusiast said last week, referring to changes brought in by John Smith to modernise the selection of MPs.

Opponents of the measures argue, though, that the plans to muzzle the left will take power from the grassroots of the party, rather than increasing it.

Between a third and a half of constituencies are believed to feel they have not had enough time to consider the proposals. Although they were published in February, all normal party business was suspended that month in the run-up to the general election.

Among them is Brent East, constituency of the left-wing MP Ken Livingstone, a long-time critic of the proposals. "My party were unanimous in wanting this deferred, because they didn't think there was any possibility of any serious consideration in such a rushed manner after the election," he said.

The document is also encountering opposition from union affiliates, which presently hold half the votes at the annual conference. While unions are publicly emphasising their support of the broad thrust of the document, they harbour a number of serious concerns.

The three biggest affiliates, the GMB, the TGWU and Unison, which together account for more than a third of the votes, are particularly angry about plans to deprive them of the ability to table motions at the annual conference, outside an agenda set by the Joint Policy Committee.

All three organisations will seek to put pressure on the Labour leadership to make concessions on the content of the document. There will also be calls for a substantial debate on the issue, which Tony Blair may be keen to avoid.

A GMB statement attacks the existing National Policy Forum for creating an atmosphere of "mistrust and suspicion" and argues that it is surrounded by a "growing crisis of accountability".

Last night a Labour spokesman said he had not heard that there was widespread opposition, though he added that in some areas members were saying they wanted more time to discuss the issues.

"There is no question of putting this off until next year. When we have got the consultative process completed we are going to have to put together a document which unites the responses."

Labour's key plans

The National Executive Committee must not see itself as a "watchdog", but will have a duty to back the Government.

Conference will be a "showcase", although it will still have the final say on policy issues.

Policy-making will be overseen by the political office at No 10.

Labour will try to build a mass membership, with a target of 450,000 this year - up 50,000.