Labour ballot plan for key policies

Clause IV debate: Blair victory could mean votes on all main issues, but opposition stiffening in run-up to 29 April
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Public Policy Editor

Fresh constitutional changes in effect requiring constituency parties and trade unions to ballot on key Labour policy issues are likely to be sought by Tony Blair if he wins the vote on Clause IV on 29 April.

Donald Dewar, a leading Shadow Cabinet member, said yesterday that one of the lessons of the current exercise was that "ballots are an important way of testing public opinion accurately, and that is no doubt something that unions and other parts of the party may wish to think about in future".

Labour had made great strides in democratising the party, he said on BBC Radio's The World at One "but there may still be some way to go".

His hint at future changes came as Labour officials claim that those constituencies which have completed ballots of their members are voting eight to one in favour of the new Clause IV. But with only three-quarters of constituency parties holding a ballot, that still leaves it likely that at least a quarter of constituencies will vote to retain the old version. At the same time, the way Labour has conducted the ballot has come under fire internally.

Some unions - the Union of Communication Workers, for example - have put the old and new versions alongside each other in their ballots asking their members to choose. The ballot for individual party members, however, merely details the new clause. Under Labour's rules, the new clause cannot be amended at the special conference, only accepted or rejected.

Mike Watts, secretary of the What's Left Network, Labour's fastest growing constituency pressure group, said that was "disappointing". He added: "It makes life difficult for people like myself who are happy to see Clause IV revised but are being given no choice at all about how that is done. It drives us into a corner." Even in elections for trade union officials, he said, those voting were given statements by the candidates setting out the alternatives on offer.

A Labour party spokesman defended the decision, pointing out that the core of the clause - Labour's traditional commitment to "the common ownership of the means of production distribution and exchange" - is on every party member's card. "People have only to get their card out and look at it."

The 25 per cent of constituencies who have rejected the national executive's advice to hold individual member ballots are mainly expected to vote against change on 29 April - making it likely that up to a third of the constituencies will vote to keep the old clause.

Individual ballots have to be held for party leadership and national executive elections but ballots on policy or constitutional changes have no constitutional standing and are purely - as with the Clause IV votes - advisory.

Pressure, however, is mounting for more ballots by both constituencies and unions on key issues in future. To date, Labour has not intervened to force unions to ballot. It might, however, insist, as it did with last year's leadership election, that those that do not ballot cannot take part. A party spokesman said there was a consultation process, but "if there was a ballot on every issue the cost would be prohibitive".