Blair soft-pedals over reversing BR privatisation

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The Independent Online
Tony Blair yesterday warned that a new Clause IV was crucial to election victory and underpinned his determination not to do "deals" over its wording by declining to make a specific pledge to renationalise British Rail.

The Labour leader said there was "no more important task before us to ensure Labour's electability" than the modernisation of the party constitution. He promised it would be the "foundation and the launching pad" of a campaign for national renewal.

Mr Blair's remarks came as he announced that Labour would launch an all-out campaign to mobilise public support to halt the Government's "absurd" plan to privatise the railways ahead of the election. The campaign is at the heart of a three-part strategy to build in 1995 on the defeat of plans to sell off the Post Office and raise value-added tax on fuel to 17.5 per cent.

At the same time, Mr Blair promised to force the Tories to contain "pay and perks excesses" of top executives in privatised utilities and to halt social security changes curbing help for mortgage payers who lose jobs.

Further opposition to the leadership on Clause IV became evident yesterday when half the 62 Labour MEPs signed an advertisement in the Guardian condemning the move. But, in a warning to his party of the importance of change, the Labour leader told a London news conference: "No matter how discredited the Tories may be, it is about us, not them, that the public now want to know more."

On reports that the leadership was facing mounting demands from within trade unions for pledges to renationalise the rail and water industries as a price for support over Clause IV, Mr Blair said: "There is no question of deals or trade-offs." He was mystified by the reports since "no one has sought any deal from me or anyone else in the Labour leadership".

The Labour refusal to make a specific BR pledge partly reflects optimism that its campaign will make it increasingly difficult for the Government to find private sector buyers for franchises. But Brian Mawhinney, Secretary of State for Transport, last night seized gleefully on what the Tories saw as a retreat, quoting the declaration of the former transport spokesman, Frank Dobson, to the October Labour conference: "We will reverse the privatisation of Britain's railways. We will bring the railway syste m back into public ownership and control." Pointing out the conference had endorsed that, he asked: "Is Labour committed to renationalisation, or not?"

Despite repeated questioning on the BBC Today programme yesterday, John Prescott - one of a series of Labour spokesmen who has firmly committed the party to BR renationalisation - stopped just short of repeating such a pledge.

Mr Blair said: "I am not about to start spraying around commitments as to what we are going to do when the Government carries through its proposals - if it carries them through. What we always face, when the Tories privatise something - as they privatised water - is you have got to review the decision once it's done.

"We don't want the railways privatised. Our campaign is to prevent that privatisation happening, not to get into hypothetical questions as to what we would do this way or that way."

On executive salaries and mortgage help for the unemployed, Labour will seek to use parliamentary opportunities to foster Tory rebellions as it did over VAT. Amendments will be submitted to pensions, gas and Budget legislation in an attempt to give shareholders new rights and obligations to sanction executive pay rises.

Meanwhile, Mr Blair signalled a possible shift away from a pre-general election commitment to a nationwide tier of English regional government.He said the installation of regional government would "depend on the support being there".

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