Labour split on fees

LABOUR'S conference will open later this month with the leadership split over the way to tackle a membership crisis that has left the party nursing a pounds 2m overdraft.

An emergency 20 per cent increase in annual subscriptions is opposed by prominent figures in the party, including Gordon Brown, the Labour spokesman on the economy, and Tony Blair, the home affairs spokesman. They believe Labour should be cutting its fees to raise membership from its lowest level since the Second World War.

The agenda for the Blackpool conference, published today, confirms the plan to raise subscriptions to pounds 18 next year from the current pounds 15. The National Executive Committee is also proposing to increase affiliation fees which trade unions pay on behalf of 4.8 million members from pounds 1.60 to pounds 1.70 per head.

The NEC's annual conference report describes the increases as a 'holding situation' while a finance working party considers plans to cut spending and deal with the slump in membership. Individual membership for 1991 is put at 261,233 - less than half the level recorded 13 years ago, when Labour last held power. Recruitment difficulties have been compounded by problems with a computerised national membership scheme.

Mr Brown and Mr Blair, who are expected to be elected to the NEC for the first time, have both campaigned for lower joining fees. Mr Brown's office said yesterday that he favoured the cut as an experiment.

The conference resolution submitted by his local party in Dunfermline East proposes the subscription be cut to pounds 5. Mr Blair's Sedgefield constituency party also wants a lower fee, to make Labour 'a genuine mass membership party'. David Blunkett, the party's health spokesman, last night declared his opposition to the pounds 18 subscription. 'We need to be in the business of encouraging new members and I am not convinced increasing the basic membership fee will achieve that,' he said.

John Smith, at his first autumn conference as leader, is expected to win approval for moves to reduce the trade union vote from 90 per cent to 70 per cent at future conferences.