April debate set on Clause IV

NEC agrees timetable for consultation and drafting
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Labour is to hold a special conference on 29 April to decide the new version of Clause IV which is expected to drop the party's historic commitment to "the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange".

But yesterday the party's national executive, while agreeing the timetable, insisted on a two-day meeting in March to agree the final wording that will be put to the April conference. The NEC will meet on 13 and 15 March, ensuring that changes to the draft that will be put forward by Tony Blair and John Prescott on 13 March are then seen and approved by the whole NEC on 15 March. One national executive member said: "That means the NEC, not the leader's office, will retain ultimate control of the re-drafted clause".

After the hiccup last month over timing, the NEC agreed by 20 votes to 3 a timetable that will see consultation close on 3 March. Backers of the existing Clause IV claimed the decision to hold a special conference reflected fears that the full Labour Party conference might not have agreed the change next October.

David Winnick, the MP for Walsall North who made a passionate defence of Clause IV at the party conference last October, said the special conference was aimed at winning agreement before the main trade union conference season, thus avoiding the risk thatunion conferences might vote, against their leaders' wishes, to retain Clause IV.

One NEC member who backs changing Clause IV noted that "old Labour" tactics for fixing the unions were being used to ensure that "new Labour" is delivered.Mr Blair told the NEC he wanted "extensive consultation" and promised to consult, as far as possible, every NEC member on the new wording. But the conference should be held earlier rather than later, because the Tory party was now so fractious that "anything could happen in the next few months".

The consultation around the aims and values document agreed last month will include a questionnaire to go out in a special edition of Labour Party News which asks members how they believe Labour should express its commitment "to an economy in which thereis an efficient, accountable and socially responsive private sector, with effective public ownership, control and regulation of key public services and utilities".

Regional meetings will be held for party members to debate the proposed change and unions are expected to hold their own consultations.