Blair faces row over minimum wage policy

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SUPPORTERS of Tony Blair are working to defuse a row over policy for a national minimum wage that has threatened to erupt at the Labour Party conference in Blackpool next week.

In a meeting today, Garfield Davies, leader of the shopworkers' union Usdaw, is proposing to drop an earlier demand that the statutory minimum should be tied to half the median level of male manual earnings.

The behind-the-scenes moves came as Mr Blair prepared a keynote speech to the conference in which he will project the party as the champion of an industrially modernised and socially responsible nation 'at work and not on benefit'.

He will also be making a concerted attempt to redraw the boundaries between his 'new left' Labour Party and Conservatism while at the same time also pledging to extend democracy and build a new trust between government and the public. After a campaign to jettison the corporatist, interventionist, and 'tax and spend' legacy of the party's past, Mr Blair is said to be determined to supply clear reasons for voting Labour and develop a sustainable programme for government in the coming year.

A further underlying theme will be that the party has hitherto lacked a distinctive identity because it appeared to have sacrificed principle to electoral expediency.

He now intends to bring what one aide called 'new heart and confidence to the party and the country by providing a properly argued and intellectually robust alternative to the Tory philosophy and record'.

He will outline four key distinct areas of policy:

The creation of a skilled workforce;

Making Labour's economic case to fulfil its social aim of a 'nation at work and not on benefit', stressing that a vibrant and growing economy is critical to the provision of social justice;

Creating a 'responsible' society capable of fighting crime and anti-social behaviour;

Re-establishing trust between government and public by setting high standards of public administration, extending democracy and accountability, eliminating sleaze, and ending a regime of 'something for nothing' political patronage.

This last theme is expected to include a pledge to democratise, or dismantle, the power of unelected quangos.

Mr Blair's address will be the first significant test of his standing with activists since the leadership contest. Peter Hain, MP for Neath and chair of the left-wing Tribune newspaper, wrote in a pamplet yesterday that the 'proverbial floating Southern voter is not impressed by soft-focus smiles with no substance. Nor does he or she respect Labour leaders who dodge questions about support for railway signalmen or appear to want higher defence spending or lower taxes than the Tories'.

John Prescott, the deputy leader, was yesterday said to have been holding talks with union leaders to defuse the brewing argument over the minimum wage which threatens to sour relations between the leadership and the conference floor. A separate row over women's quotas could also be settled by a leadership statement making it clear that the party executive has 'discretion' in imposing women candidates on unwilling constituency parties.

In the meantime, the Usdaw leader's switch of stance on the minimum wage will be opposed by colleagues in his own union, many of whose members earn less than the pounds 4-plus that the half median wage formula would produce.