Labour Conference: Unions reluctantly endorse party reform

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The Independent Online
The leadership's latest modernisation proposals won approval, despite claims that they would curb debate. Fran Abrams and Barrie Clement listened to the arguments over reforms to the National Executive Committee and to the conference.

The shadow of 18 years in opposition hung over the Brighton Centre yesterday as the Labour leadership used post-election euphoria to help push through its controversial internal changes.

Those who favoured a new "stakeholder" system warned that internal divisions had kept the party out of power in the past, while their opponents retorted that they, too, had contributed to election victory on 1 May.

Mr Blair's aides have argued that the reforms should prevent activists from wounding the Government by inflicting defeats at conference and in the NEC. They want the conference to become more of a showcase for government policy. Changes to the committee will almost certainly exclude left-wing MPs such as Diane Abbott and Dennis Skinner.

Appeals to nostalgia and to the party's history abounded on both sides. Tom Sawyer, the general secretary, said the "committed pioneers" who had built power bases both in Parliament and in their party had failed to prevent conflict between the two.

"In the past we haven't always been united, and when we have divided we have lost the people's trust. And ... when parties lose the trust of people, they get punished at the ballot box," he said.

Ken Livingstone, MP for Brent East, a leading opponent of the proposals, disagreed. "I am 52, and if this Government fails, there may not be another Labour government in my lifetime. I would do anything to make certain we get this Government re-elected," he said. "But we won't do that if we aren't able to be critical and to say when we think things are wrong."

About 100 constituency parties had expressed doubts about the changes and for them to be put next year so that they could be debated further. The vote was won at least partly on the strength of support from major trades unions, some of which decided only at the last minute to support the plans.

John Edmonds, general secretary of the GMB general union, said he would back them, but added: "We will be watching you." The Labour leadership would have to show it was worthy of the unions' trust, he warned.

Unions privately believe they can still exercise critical influence over the new policy-making process and even dominate it.

While nothing could fully replace the 90 per cent voting share they once commanded at policy-making conferences, they believe that they will still exert decisive power behind the scenes.