Labour in Blackpool: Blair signals possibility of links with Lib Dems: Conference ends with recruitment call to give party half a million members

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The Independent Online
TONY BLAIR yesterday opened up the possibility of closer dialogue with the Liberal Democrats on a day when the deputy leader, John Prescott, launched a drive to bring membership of the Labour Party up to 500,000.

In end-of-conference interviews, the Labour leader proffered a 'dialogue of ideas on the left', adding: 'I don't think the Labour Party should be exclusive about its politics. I don't think we should say we are the people with the only good ideas.'

It was 'intelligent politics' to co-operate, he said, but it was important that discussions were about ideas, not 'pacts and

deals and fixes between political parties'.

The change in political style should also apply in Westminster, where he said voters who watched Prime Minister's question time must 'wonder what on earth they have elected'. He wanted Westminster reconnected with people's lives. For that to happen Parliament had to conduct its affairs more sensibly.

Mr Blair claimed a sea change in British politics. He dismissed Thursday's Clause IV vote as 'a mild mishap', as he repeatedly drove home the message that in future Labour will 'mean what we say and say what we mean'. He offered the rewriting of Clause IV, which he remained certain would be adopted, as 'a symbol of the trust the British people can place in us to govern'.

At the same time, he reassured Labour's left that 'of course public services should be publicly owned', citing health, education, the Post Office and the railways.

Mr Blair, however, had to live with final-day warnings, greeted with cheers, from Larry Whitty, the departing general secretary, that 'the trade union base of this party is its greatest strength, and not its weakness', and that when the leadership moved it had to ensure that it took the party with it.

Mr Prescott launched the renewed membership drive on the back of already sharply rising figures by urging the party's 290,000 members each to recruit one new member. His roistering speech echoed his leader's message that: 'We are a Labour Party that has learned its lessons. Once again we are a Labour Party with ambition. Labour with confidence. Labour to be proud of,' and himself used the phrase 'New Labour'.

He acknowledged that there would be an argument about Clause IV, but in a warning to the left he told them they needed to be loyal. 'This movement has always had debate,' he said. But once a decision was made 'then we all get behind that decision. Let's all be clear about that as we embark on this particular debate'.

The finale proved it was Mr Prescott's day as a New Orleans parade band played Labour through the traditional 'Red Flag' and out to dixie jazz. Mr Prescott, a noted jazz fan, and his wife, Pauline, wowed the conference by jiving on the platform as the conference ended, the Labour deputy leader notably light on his feet.

In his last conference speech as Labour's general secretary, Larry Whitty warned Tony Blair and the party not to split over Clause IV when power was in Labour's grasp.

Mr Whitty, who is moving to work for the party in Europe after almost 10 years as the head of Labour's headquarters in Walworth Road, south London, said: 'Socialist politics is not simply about the transfer of power from one elite to another.' Too often he had seen the movement split.

He gave them three pointers: 'Remember your history and the history of the broader Labour and trade union movement. Remember those people who have voted for you through bad times and good. And remember, to make progress in life and in politics you have to take the people with you.'