Politics: Blair and activists set for showdown at the seaside

Tony Blair makes it clear in his party's conference guide he will not slow the pace of change in spite of misgivings by the unions. But there are also rumblings over a decision to make his speech an all-ticket event. Colin Brown, Chief Political Correspondent, reports.
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The Independent Online
Tony Blair's first speech to the party conference as Prime Minister is being made ticket-only, leaving overspill audiences to watch it on big screens outside the main conference hall.

Reaching out to more people has meant that a record number - 23,000 people - have asked for accreditation for the conference, which starts at Brighton Conference Centre a week tomorrow.

Activists are concerned they will not get in, and Labour MPs are also worried that they may not receive the special tickets for admission, while big donors get ringside seats.

The party conference guide carries a warning that tickets will be needed for the speech in addition to security passes, and they will be issued with all credentials. "Due to the huge demands, some will not be able to have access to the conference hall for this session.

"These people will be able to watch the speech on a large screen in the Kingswest cinema complex. Additional screens are situated in the exhibition area in the Metropole Hotel and the Hewison Hall."

In a foreword to the conference guide, Mr Blair warns there will be no return to the "old ways", and makes it clear he is pressing ahead with further controversial reforms in spite of rumblings from the unions.

The Prime Minister, whose strategy was backed by the Cabinet yesterday, shows he is determined to force the pace of further change, raising the prospect of a showdown at the seaside with trade unionists and traditional party supporters.

Some union activists fear the changes to the national executive due to be endorsed at the conference could pave the way for an eventual break between Labour and the unions.

That charge is denied by Labour party leaders. The foreword says: "Yes, we changed as a party - we had to if we were ever to form a government again. And yes we will keep on changing to make our party stronger, more democratic, with real roots in the community.

"What has excited the country - and visitors from around the world - is that new Labour is a real break with the past. We are breaking down the old barriers between different sections of society, standing at the centre and reaching out to all," he says.

And Mr Blair adds: "How conference conducts its business, as the sovereign body of our party, must reflect the belief that we can never return to the old ways."