Labour gets stronger pro-Europe stance

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The Independent Online
Neil Kinnock topped the poll in Labour's national executive committee (NEC) elections yesterday as the party conference, building on the new leadership's more pro-Europe stance, overwhelmingly rejected calls for a referendum on the Maastricht treaty. The elections swept away almost all opposition on Labour's ruling body to John Smith's leadership.

Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, Labour's shadow Chancellor and home affairs spokesman, were both elected. Dennis Skinner, MP for Bolsover and persistent critic of Labour's changes, was knocked off - and Bryan Gould's humiliation and isolation were completed as he lost his seat with an almost derisory vote.

With Hilary Armstrong, Mr Smith's parliamentary private secretary, joining the women's section and Judith Church, another Smith supporter, elected to the trade union section, only Tony Benn of the old left survived - in last place.

Mr Gould's crushing defeat came as the conference rejected on a show of hands an emergency resolution demanding that Labour back a referendum on Maastricht. Its movers did not even seek a card vote, so strong was the opposition.

Backers of Mr Brown and Mr Blair interpreted their election, at the first attempt, as a resounding vote for change. They have both argued that the party must modernise to win, with Mr Blair also arguing for sweeping changes to the trade union link. Both believe Labour must slash membership fees to create a mass party which can be consulted in building policies in touch with voters' aspirations.

The results give a far tighter tie between senior members of the Shadow Cabinet and the national executive, which in the past have been warring power bases, than any Mr Kinnock enjoyed. The former Labour leader's topping of the poll may help to resolve the issue of whether he goes to Brussels as an EC commissioner.

Yesterday he ducked questions over whether he was interested in the job, which would be politically difficult for John Major to offer to him. If he went, Mr Skinner would return to the NEC as the highest placed loser. His absence means Mr Benn is isolated, without a seconder for the left's traditional opposition to 'modernisation'.

Mr Gould, many of whose backers are bitter and angry at his resignation from the Shadow Cabinet on Sunday, acknowledged that his defeat might be retribution for his leadership challenge to Mr Smith. Members might well be saying 'we don't want anyone who gave trouble', he said. But the party would still need voices that did not support only mainstream policies.

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