Labour slaps down unrest

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THE LABOUR leadership last night cracked down on dissent in the party as it revealed preparations to make this year's annual party conference as trouble-free as possible for Tony Blair and the Cabinet.

Conference reports show there is growing unrest in the Labour grassroots over the Government's public sector pay squeeze, the failure to provide Parliamentary time for the bill to ban foxhunting, and increases in calls for the abolition of the Monarchy and the House of Lords.

But the room for dissent at the conference is being minimised, with Cabinet ministers facing questions at the conference behind closed doors for the first time, without the press and cameras present, in two 90-minute sessions during the week.

As the plans emerged, for what promises to be the most carefully stage- managed Labour conference ever, Tom Sawyer, the outgoing party general secretary took firm action in slapping down Liz Davies, a left wing candidate for the national executive elections, who had sent an open letter to NEC members protesting that a telephone ballot could be open to manipulation and abuse.

Mr Sawyer accused Ms Davies, a one-time rebel, of leading a "concerted campaign of slur and innuendo" against party staff and others about the handling of the telephone polling for the NEC elections. "I must demand that you withdraw these allegations and offer a full apology to party staff," he said.

The activist Grassroots Alliance last night hit back accusing the leadership of being "control freaks" and persuading some candidates for the NEC elections to stand down to avoid splitting the right wing vote at the conference in Blackpool.

Party leaders said the new system of holding policy forums throughout the country meant there was more open debate than ever.

But it is clear that the leadership wants no return to the days when Labour was last in power, and Cabinet ministers such as Denis Healey were pilloried at the annual conference.

There will be none of the traditional card votes on "composite" resolutions. Instead, the conference will discuss broad policy proposals, previously discussed in the policy forums.

The conference will open on Sunday with a review of the party machinery; key debates are likely to be on the economy on Monday, health, education, controversial plans for reform of the state pension and the electoral system.

The NEC has told the Jenkins commission it is opposed to "pure" proportional representation, which, it warns, would lead to coalition government.

The leader's address by Tony Blair will still be on the Tuesday and the conference is due to end on Friday, said officials, with the traditional singing of the Red Flag.

Labour's membership is now an estimated 399,000.