LABOUR IN BLACKPOOL: Party signals end to free debate

A radical change to Labour's policy making process so that the party conference will not be able to dictate to a Tony Blair government was signalled yesterday by Tom Sawyer, Labour's modernising general secretary.

During a prickly session on party organisation and policy making in which one delegate complained of "dark forces" plotting the conference's demise, Mr Sawyer said Labour could not afford to repeat past conflicts.

"We cannot afford to squander the work we have done now and throw it away with arguments and differences between the party and the [Labour] government."

Moves are already underway to trim the power of the National Executive Committee, but Mr Sawyer yesterday focused on the deficiencies of the conference as a policy making body. "I don't believe that hundreds of people out there, hopefully waving their hands in the air for the possible, but remote, opportunity of having three minutes at this rostrum really does add up to a democratic conference process," he said.

But after several pot-shots were taken at the "centralist" tendencies of the leadership, Mr Sawyer, on a return to the rostrum, said the only way the role of the conference could be altered was by a decision of the conference itself.

"Conference is the policy-making body of the Labour Party. It is set out in the rules and there are no plans to change that," he told sceptical delegates.

For the first time in the party's history, all 400,000 members and 2.5 million union members will have an opportunity to vote on the draft manifesto.

Karen Price, of Neath, said it was "ridiculous" to think that policy could be decided by a "Yes - No" referendum. Activists should not be taken for granted, she said, moving a motion accepted by the leadership to set local policy forums.

Simon McKeown, of Southwark and Bermondsey, hit out at the "dark forces" who wanted to do away with the conference and at the blatant stage management. To protests, he said that at future conferences "glamourously clad PPCs will be worshipped by wretched, manacled but smiling constituency delegates".

Joan Abrams, of Hazel Grove, said it was obvious that very few people who disagreed with the platform had been allowed to speak during the week in Blackpool. The party's chances of winning the election might be helped if the leadership could be seen as able to accept criticism and was "not afraid of being defeated occasionally", she said.

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