Labour to award diplomas in Blairism

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The Independent Online
THE LABOUR Party is setting up an academy of political campaigning to train up a "New Model Army" of apparatchiks who can be activated by its Millbank Tower headquarters in the run-up to the next general election.

An elite corps of high-flyers is being hand-picked for special training on a new year-long course about New Labour's aims and activities. They will be given lessons in canvassing, recruiting members, writing speeches and handling the media. Graduates of the New Labour academy will receive a nationally recognised "diploma of Blairism", linked to the NVQ system, if they prove that they have acquired the necessary skills.

Once training is completed, the professional campaigners will be deployed across the country in key seats or at headquarters. Salaries will vary according to the different tasks, but the party has refused to say how much the ambitious project will cost in training and salary expenses.

Candidates for the school are now being chosen through a rigorous selection procedure including three days of aptitude tests designed to assess managerial skills, endurance and intelligence. They will also be quizzed on their political views to make sure they are in tune with the New Labour project. The process, based on the civil service fast-track selection system, is designed to choose 30 people out of the 1,000 who have applied for the special training.

The academy will be based at the Trades Union Congress National Education Centre in Crouch End, north London. It will run residential courses, spread out over 12 months, including lectures from senior figures in the party such as Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson. Those who enrol will also be shown the Labour Party machine in operation at Millbank Tower and sent off for work experience in constituencies around the country. They will be assessed on the basis of course work completed during the year.

"There will be a new cadre on the streets in the run-up to the next election," one party official said. "Labour wants to start preparing ahead so we can have people in place to win the next election, and those people have got to be professional."

The move comes as Labour launches a recruitment drive this weekend, aimed at spreading the party's influence into every part of the community. Letters have gone out to supporters urging them to join up and setting out the details of new deals such as reduced rates for family membership.

The number of Labour Party members dropped from 405,238 at the end of 1997 to 391,771 at the end of last year, although it has increased slightly since then to 393,754 last month.

The drive coincides with what the Government is describing as "delivery week" during which policies come into effect over the next few days.

The minimum wage, free eye-tests for pensioners and pounds 40bn for schools and hospitals all come on-line from 1 April. There will also be cuts in National Insurance and increases in child benefit over the next fortnight.