Seven sources of strife for Labour

BLACKPOOL CONFERENCE: Tony Blair had an easy ride in Brighton in 1995. This year will be tougher, as contentious issues come to the fore
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Union bosses have been in and out of Westminster, as one old Labour lag put it, "just like the old days". Labour front-benchers have even been out to the regions to meet the delegates ahead of this week's party conference. Tony Blair's New Labour has spent a frenzied week attempting to recreate the facade of unity it presented to the electorate last year in Brighton. Then, in the most stage-managed Labour conference of modern times, the leadership did not lose a single vote.

This year, after rows over grant-maintained schools, spin doctors and the trade union link with Labour, things look very different. Party conference rebellions are notoriously difficult to predict, partly because late deals are done when motions are composited over the weekend.

Half of the votes are in the hands of the unions with very different agendas. Nor are the delegates a homogeneous grouping, and almost all are desperate for Labour to win power. But after last year's show of unity, any defeat will be seen as a reverse for Mr Blair. Points of potential conflict include:

Flashpoint 1: Union rights

Mr Blair summoned the three top union bosses to his private office last Wednesday to plead, unsuccessfully, for their endorsement of a watered- down version of their demands on restoration of rights at work. The hard bargaining was still going on yesterday but one union source said: "We are not backing down." The sensitive issue of the level of Labour's proposed national minimum wage is unlikely to be pressed. But the unions want employees to have rights at work from the first day they take a job - including the right not be unfairly dismissed. John Smith, the former Labour leader, promised they would get this but Mr Blair, with a keen eye on the business lobby, went back on the pledge and has dug in. Meanwhile the executive of the postal workers union is seeking to table an emergency motion attacking Labour's approach to industrial action in the public sector. Expect fireworks.

Flashpoint 2: Pensions

This promises to be the best theatre on offer in Blackpool's Winter Gardens this week. Labour's most famous old trouper, Barbara Castle, will tread the boards in a battle against old Labour's prime stage villain, Harriet Harman. Lady Castle will appeal for a restoration of the link between earnings and pensions promised by Labour in the last election, then dumped by Gordon Brown, the Shadow Chancellor on cost grounds. Mr Brown yesterday did a deal which will almost certainly avoid a conference defeat. It may take more to silence Lady Castle who is still expected to speak to a packed hall. A row which could run and run.

Flashpoint 3: Child benefit

The cause of one of the longest standing Shadow Cabinet rows this year was Mr Brown's decision to axe child benefit for some 16 to 18-year-olds attending school. Mr Brown now says only children of better-off families will lose the benefit, but hasn't spelt out how much you will have to earn to lose out. This may be enough to defuse the row, but critics are still alarmed at what they see as an end to a universal benefit, opening the way to means-testing. The leadership now expects this to go its way.

Flashpoint 4: Defence

Demands for cuts in defence spending used to be part of the ritual of Labour conference week. The leadership would oppose motions, lose them, then immediately announce that it was not bound by the conference's decision. That changed last year when the leadership surprised itself by winning. Early indications are that it should hold the line again this year when delegates vote on a more anodyne motion than expected.

Flashpoint 5: Education

First came Mr Blair's decision to send his son to an opt-out school, then Ms Harman went one worse, sending hers to a selective opt-out school. Last year Roy Hattersley championed the cause of comprehensive education in a bruising battle with Mr Blunkett. More passionate speeches from the floor may be made this year, even if there is no contentious vote on the issue. Malcontents may satisfy themselves by voting to remove Ms Harman from the National Executive Committee.

Flashpoint 6: Europe

This is the dark horse candidate for trouble. The conference managers have stitched together a compromise on monetary union which welcomes the advent of the Euro in principle, but leaves a Labour government's options open. But Tories were overjoyed this summer when dozens of Labour MPs endorsed a policy statement rejecting the single currency on the grounds that it would cost too many jobs and force big public spending cuts. Will keep on simmering.

Flashpoint 7: Rail

Last year the leadership backed down in the face of the rail unions, and accepted a composite which committed it to bringing rail back into public ownership. Any weakening on this pledge this year will be opposed by the unions, which were none too happy with Mr Blair's interference in the public sector strikes of the summer. Clare Short's move from transport has worried them even more. An outside bet for a row.

Dissent in the wings could produce fireworks as the focus of rebellion threatens to shift to aconference fringe which promises to be as lively as the events inside the hall. At least at the fringe meetings, dissidents like Tony Benn, Jeremy Corbyn, Diane Abbot and Ken Livingstone will be allowed access to the microphone. Ken Coates, one of the MEPs who embarrassed Mr Blair on his one and only visit to the European Parliament, set the tone yesterday. He and co-author Michael Barrat Brown launched a book, The Blair Revelation - Deliverance for Whom? that suggested Labour should change its leader. It argued: "A leadership challenge once the election is out of the way is the most rational method within a democratic framework to resolve the question of whether the Labour Party should be transformed into an alternative capitalist party. Those who devoted their entire lifetimes to the Labour cause are unlikely to allow the vision which has inspired them to be permanently blacked out. If a challenge were made it would almost certainly succeed, so wounded are the susceptibilities of so many party members and supporters."

Profile of Castle, page 17 Leading article, page18 Blair can smile, page 19

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