Labour Conference: Castle's stand on pensions fails to dent party leadership

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Barbara Castle took the conference by storm yesterday with an attack on the leadership over pensions which won a standing ovation but left policy unchanged. Other potential conflicts were defused.

Fran Abrams says the leadership now looks certain to finish its third consecutive conference without a single defeat.

Rebels who had hoped to inflict punishment on the Government on pensions and on student fees failed yesterday, despite rousing speeches on the conference floor. Both groups withdrew without pushing the issue to a vote after it became clear that they could not win.

In separate developments yesterday, opponents of plans to cut single mothers' benefits were denied the chance to put their case while campaigners for the renationalisation of Railtrack also withdrew without a vote.

Baroness Castle, a long-term campaigner for the restoration of link between pensions and inflation, did not succeed in reversing a decision taken last year to reject her pleas. However, she did succeed in setting alight a hitherto rather dull conference and in winning a standing ovation not only from the delegates but also from the Secretary of State for Social Security, Harriet Harman.

She urged delegates to stop the basic state pension "withering on the vine" and cast doubt on the validity of the advice the government would receive in its ongoing pensions review. "Who, in the end, will they listen to? Because I'm darned if I am going to hand my social conscience over to the man from the Pru," she said.

The endorsement of plans to charge graduates pounds 1,000 for each year of their university education marked a victory for the Education and Employment Secretary, David Blunkett. The support of Labour Students for his plans put the final nail in the coffin of protests within the party.

But Maria Exall of the Communication Workers' Union said charging fees would deter many working class students from going to university.

"Yes, we need a modern education system but on this issue we say clearly, `Tony, you are wrong'," she said.

Despite talk earlier in the week of a knife-edge vote on student fees, none happened. The story was similar on other controversial issues.

Calls for the Government to abandon plans to cut benefits for single parents also came to nothing after a decision was taken not to hold a full debate.