Millbank to relax `control freak' policy

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The Independent Online
TONY BLAIR is to devolve more power to the Labour parties in Scotland and Wales in response to growing criticism of the "control freak tendency" at the party's Millbank headquarters in London.

Labour's ruling National Executive Committee will today agree to a review of the party's structure to take account of the creation of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly this month. The move will be seen as a conciliatory response to criticism from activists in Scotland and Wales that Millbank has interfered in the running of the party in the two countries.

Privately, senior Labour figures admit that Mr Blair's determination to install Alun Michael, the Secretary of State for Wales, as First Secretary in the Cardiff assembly cost the party dearly in this month's elections, helping Plaid Cymru to capture some of Labour's heartlands. In Scotland, some activists criticised the involvement of Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, and his aides in the campaign. But the Labour leadership insists Mr Brown turned a lacklustre operation around.

Labour's general secretary, Margaret McDonagh, will tell the NEC that the party machine must reflect the post-devolution political map. But she will argue for a cool-headed assessment rather than an instant response. Millbank sources confirmed last night that the review was bound to lead to the parties in Scotland and Wales getting more freedom to run their own affairs.

"The relationship will have to change after devolution," one senior official said. "But we are not talking about total autonomy. We will need to ensure the party has a coherent overall message."

The move marks a U-turn by Labour. Donald Dewar, the First Minister in Scotland, and John Reid, his successor as Secretary of State for Scotland, have both dampened demands for more power. "There has always been a great deal of autonomy for the party in Scotland," Mr Reid said on Sunday. "But what is also clear is that we are not a separatist party."

Labour sources in London dismissed reports that the general secretary of the Scottish party, Alex Rowley, had been forced to resign following a string of disputes with the party hierarchy. They insisted that he wanted to step down.

Although the review will be welcomed by Mr Blair's critics, left-wing NEC members will today fire another broadside at the Prime Minister over his "control freakery".

They will demand that Mr Blair restates his commitment to a "one member, one vote" system for internal party elections, and propose that trade unions should not be allowed to take part unless they ballot their members first.

This was the rule when Mr Blair was elected Labour leader in 1994, but it was set aside during the contest in which Mr Michael was elected Labour's candidate for First Secretary. Amid claims of a "stitch-up" by Millbank, unions which did not ballot their members helped Mr Michael defeat Rhodri Morgan, the MP for Cardiff West, who was opposed by Mr Blair.