Labour `is facing a choice of destiny'

Blair issues warning to party over Clause IV. Nicholas Timmins reports
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Tony Blair yesterday staked his and Labour's future over winning the battle on Clause IV, warning his party that it faced "a choice of destiny".

As Labour's national executive on Wednesday will consider pressing constituency parties to hold local ballots of members in an attempt to ensure their backing for the eventual new clause, Mr Blair warned his party that "we either become a vibrant left-of-centre party addressing the real needs of this country, or we will remain where we have been for 15 years - essentially a pressure group exerting influence on a Conservative government but not governing ourselves".

Asked on BBC-TV's On the Record if his job was on the line, Mr Blair said he was not threatening anyone and wanted the change made willingly. But "you don't embark on a change as serious as this unless you are well aware of all the consequences".

Insisting that the shift from Labour's constitutional commitment to the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange was "vital", he defined the party's key value as social justice, not public ownership, and said that if Labour was to win, it had to "define clearly its identity".

His warning that the next election was at stake came at the start of a crucial week in the seven-month battle over Labour's constitution with Mr Blair taking to the road in the North East and Yorkshire to argue the case for change. That comes, however, amid alarming signs for the leadership that the key "What's Left" network of former soft-left Tribune MPs and constituency members is under pressure to weaken its support for a new Clause IV. The group includes Shadow Cabinet member Michael Meacher and ke y MPs such as Clare Short, Peter Hain, Derek Fatchett and Angela Eagle, who have backed a re-write retaining commitment to public ownership and the redistribution of wealth. But the group's newsletter to constituency members this week opens by declaring that "unfortunately" Labour's consultation questionnaire omits to ask members if they want to retain Clause IV. It advises those who do to write in that "Clause IV affirms basic Labour values and should be retained intact", suggesting any additions in la ter answers. Initial signs are that constituency parties will vote heavily against any "dilution of our socialist values", it says, and Bill Morris, the Transport and General Workers general secretary, said at the weekend that he had neither seen, heard nor read anything that could "remotely meet our minimum requirements".

Mr Blair said he agreed it was wholly wrong that water and the national grid had been privatised, but rejected demands for renationalisation of the utilities. A Labour Cabinet faced with pressing expenditure needs would not want to spend billions on that. "That doesn't mean you don't believe these utilities should be publicly owned but we won't be in a position to deliver that because of the way the Government has privatised them."

Public ownership had a role and he was committed to "a publicly owned, publicly accountable railway system", but it had to be seen how that could be done in the light of how far privatisation had gone.

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