Labour imposes gag on members

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The Independent Online
THE LABOUR leadership is to bring in controversial new rules to limit the rights of party members to influence the Government's policy. The clampdown, revealed in Labour documents leaked to The Independent, provoked new allegations last night that Tony Blair is guilty of "control freakery".

Moderates as well as left-wingers accused Mr Blair of reneging on his promise to give party members a bigger say over government policy. They claim the new rules will give cabinet ministers a veto over the fine detail of all party policy decisions and allow the party little input into the programme on which Labour will fight the next general election.

Under Mr Blair's plans to modernise Labour, he set up a 175-member National Policy Forum to involve the grassroots in policy-making. Final decisions remain with the party's annual conference, its sovereign body.

A row will break out when the forum discusses the rules under which it will operate at its meeting at Labour's Millbank headquarters in London on Saturday. Mr Blair will be accused of "neutering" the new body by "fixing" its recommendations to the conference.

The move will be seen as a further attempt by Mr Blair to stamp out dissent inside the party, which will approve policy statements next autumn on health, welfare, crime and justice.

Some MPs normally loyal to Mr Blair are worried that his desire to control the party machine will backfire as he drives moderate activists into the arms of his left-wing critics.

One opponent of the proposed rules said: "Grassroots people right across the party spectrum are increasingly worried about the control freakery. Mr Blair should listen to them, instead of shooting the messenger and branding anyone who criticises him an extreme left-winger."

One senior party figure admitted: "The structure of the new system is good, but there is now growing cynicism amongst ordinary members that they will have any real say."

The agenda for Saturday's meeting reveals that party officials want to curb the power of forum members to change draft reports before they are sent to the conference. The officials recommend that proposed amendments will not be accepted unless they reflect "a significant strand" of party opinion.

The party's Joint Policy Committee, chaired by Mr Blair, will play a key role in deciding the final wording of the policy statements to be put to the annual conference. Officials want forum members proposing "non- endorsed amendments" to meet ministers and consider proposals by Mr Blair's committee "to make amendments acceptable."

When the new system was set up last year, the leadership promised the forum would be allowed to submit "minority reports" to the conference when there were significant differences among its members. This was a concession to left-wingers, who feared the forum would endorse policy statements backed by the leadership, which the conference would not be able to amend.

However, officials are now proposing strict limits on the forum's ability to produce such alternative reports. They will require support from one- third of the forum members taking part in a vote, including backing among three of the seven groups represented on the forum - constituency parties; trade unions; regions; MPs, Euro MPs and councillors; socialist societies; the Government and the National Executive Committee (NEC).

Critics will protest at Saturday's meeting that this could mean the constituency parties unanimously agreed a policy proposal - such as a call for a rise in old age pensions - but could not get it on the conference agenda.

Labour sources insisted the new system was more democratic and would give ordinary members an input into policy-making. "This year has seen unprecedented involvement of members," one official said.

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