Cherie prays, Tony plays. Meanwhile, thousands are deserting the party

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Indy Politics

The Labour Party's membership has slumped to 311,000, with the party losing almost a quarter of its members since Tony Blair became Prime Minister.

Labour's annual report, published last night, disclosed that the number of paid-up members fell by 14 per cent in the 12 months to December. Labour now has fewer activists than the Tories, who sent out 318,000 ballot forms in their present leadership election.

In 1997, membership stood at 405,000 – boosted by a big increase around the time of the general election victory – which raised Mr Blair's hopes of achieving his ambition to build a "mass membership party".

The latest figures will fuel criticism that the Government has alienated traditional Labour supporters by pitching its appeal at Middle England. Grassroots concern is likely to be voiced when the statistics are presented to Labour's annual conference next month.

A Labour spokesman played down the fall, from 361,000 to 311,000, saying the main reason was a new method of calculating the figures. Members not paying their subscriptions are now removed from the list after six months instead of 15 months.

The report says Labour recruited more than 17,000 members this year. However, it does not disclose how many have left the party. In 2000, membership fees raised £3.1m of Labour's £29m income.