Labour at odds over power to make policy

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Labour frontbench spokesmen last night said there would be a return to the "turmoil of the 1980s" if the party leadership endorsed reforms which could in effect abolish constituency parties and cut the party's union links.

Centre-left Tribunite MPs are planning to put forward alternative reforms which would reduce the number of seats for Tony Blair's key Cabinet ministers on the party's ruling executive, if Labour won office, and replace them with more grass-roots supporters, including council leaders.

One Labour left-wing source said they have the backing of John Prescott, the deputy leader, and Robin Cook, and they would fight the proposals put forward by the right-wing Labour Co-ordinating Committee for a review of the party machinery in government under Tom Sawyer, the general secretary of the party.

The source said the LCC's plans, disclosed yesterday in The Independent, were "highly centralised and elitist". "What the inside-left is arguing for, which is completely different to the LCC, is that there should be a positive partnership between the leadership and its grass roots supporters. There should be participatory democracy within the party rather than plebiscite.

"The LCC agenda whereby local parties are effectively abolished would mean local party members would become appendages of the national leadership.

"That cannot work and would lead to the same problems we had in the 1970s and the turmoil of the 1980s. What we need is a relationship of trust with the leadership where individual party members can be positively involved."

Derek Fatchett and Peter Hain, two Labour frontbench spokesmen, will publish alternative plans under the left-wing Tribune newspaper. They will propose keeping union involvement at all levels of the party, and keeping the party conference as a policy-making forum. The left wing want to give more influence to the policy forums, which already exist, to deliver policy changes.

Under the LCC plans, which have the ear of the leadership, the conference would become a "public relations rally", said the source. The Tribunite document, A Stakeholder Party, will argue that the conference should be reformed, to allow the first two days to be devoted to policy forums.

Constituencies would still send delegates to the conference, and they would retain voting powers. The NEC would remain the policy-making body between conferences, with a final decision over the manifesto, but the left wants to reduce the number of seats for sitting members of the Cabinet on the NEC.

The LCC is proposing that the NEC should no longer make policy. Unions and other affiliated groups would lose their direct links in the constituencies. General management committees, which at present send resolutions and delegates to the annual conference, would be replaced by a small executive, and grass-roots decisions would be taken by one-member-one-vote ballots.