Blair gets backing for draft manifesto

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Tony Blair yesterday put Labour on notice for an early election after more than 90 per cent of party members voted for the party's draft election manifesto.

He said the Government had damaged the country by drift and dithering, adding that Labour would do all it could to push the Prime Minister into an early election. "I don't know whether we are going to be able to push them out before they jump but if we possibly can, we will," he said.

The death of Barry Porter, the Tory MP for Wirral South, reduced the Government's notional majority to one but the Tories have had comfortable majorities in voting in the Commons in recent weeks.

The Labour leader refused to commit his party to "guerrilla tactics", getting a maximum turnout of MPs and forcing votes at all hours, which were used by the Tories under Margaret Thatcher to weaken the then Labour government of James Callaghan before they delivered the final blow in 1979. "We will pursue any tactics that are responsible," Mr Blair said. "The sooner this government is brought to an end the better because they are not doing anything."

If Mr Blair's commitment to bringing down the Government is to be fulfilled his team will have to do more to harry it in the final session of Parliament. There are fewer late-night sittings and a confidence vote to bring down the Government would require the support of all the minor parties including the Ulster Unionists.

The draft manifesto, New Life for Britain, will form the basis of the platform on which Labour goes into the election but the final manifesto will be drawn up by the leadership when the campaign is launched.

"This massive `yes' vote gives us the best possible platform in the run- up to the election," the Labour leader said. "I am saying to every member of the party, `It is time to raise our game once more. It is time to build on our success and step up a gear.'"

Mr Blair and John Prescott, the deputy leader, hailed the endorsement of the draft manifesto as a remarkable result. Mr Blair said it meant that the head and the body of the party were marching in step.

There were, however, more than 11,000 members who voted against though it is not known whether any MPs did so.

The Labour leader and his deputy both took part in a last-minute telephone canvass of supporters and dismissed doubts about the fairness of the ballot as cynicism on the part of the press and critics outside the party.

The results were: Individual party members, yes, 95 per cent (218,023); no, 5 per cent (11,286); turnout, 61 per cent (230,402). Number eligible to vote, 380,688.

Affiliated organisations, including unions: yes, 92.2 per cent; no, 7.8 per cent; turnout, 24.2 per cent. Number eligible to vote, 2,613,690.

But what does it really mean?

Cut class sizes to 30 or under for 5- to 7-year-olds, by using money saved from the assisted places scheme.

Labour says this will cost pounds 77m a year. But children already at private schools on subsidised places will be allowed to finish, and it would still cost the state sector to take children who would have gone on the pounds 139m scheme next year, so the initial savings will be small - although the cost is relatively trivial anyway.

Fast-track punishment for persistent young offenders, by halving the time from arrest to sentencing.

The average wait for young offenders is four-and-a-half months, although it might be different for the persistent sort. The speed-up is supposed to be paid for out of legal aid savings which are unconvincing but, again, the cost is small.

Cut NHS waiting lists by treating an extra 100,000 patients, as a first step, by releasing pounds 100m saved from NHS red tape.

On present trends, the NHS can expect to treat 240,000 more patients next year than this year anyway. To raise that to 340,000 is a demanding target, which will cut waiting lists.

The pounds 100m savings are again unlikely: the Government ditched three months ago the requirement for internal invoices in the NHS market - the main "paperchase" which Labour hoped to abolish.

Get 250,000 under-25-year-olds off benefit and into work, by using money from a windfall levy on the privatised utilities.

The only pledge that costs big money, about pounds 1.5bn, but why ask electricity and water consumers and shareholders, including pension funds, to pay for it?

Set tough rules for government spending and borrowing; ensure low inflation; strengthen the economy, so that interest rates are as low as possible.

A consensual aim.