Cook seeks `radical' rewrite of Clause IV

Labour frontbencher's U-turn on modernisation brings him into line with Tony Blair and the grass roots in at least one region
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Indy Politics
Robin Cook yesterday threw his weight behind Tony Blair's campaign to rewrite Clause IV as Labour's national executive did everything in its power to ensure that local parties ballot their members individually on the new clause.

The Labour leadership believes ballots will transform the debate once the new wording becomes available in March - and that Mr Cook's public support for change, linked to an admission that he had originally been against the project, will help to swing constituency activists behind a new clause.

The shadow Foreign Secretary has not been the closest of Labour's senior frontbenchers to the new leadership. But having topped both the Shadow Cabinet and national executive elections, his standing among party activists is the highest among frontbenchers.

With John Prescott, the deputy leader, tied in to Mr Blair over the Clause IV rewrite, Mr Cook yesterday emerged in the role that Mr Prescott himself played in helping to deliver one-member-one vote for John Smith. In a specially staged speech, he said he was now persuaded that a rewritten Clause IV would provide a more radical, more exciting, fuller and richer statement of Labour's ideology.

He assured party activists that "public ownership will be retained in Labour's new statement of aims" which should also include "a just society", an "opportunity economy", a "stable environment", equal rights and open democracy. It should also include "public ownership where it is necessary to meet social needs" - a wording thought to edge close to that likely to be put forward in March.

He emphasised, however, that the restatement must be "radical" and, in a marker for the national executive debate over the new wording, he said that the most objectionable feature of British society was its inequality. A prime objective of any party of the left must be a programme "to distribute fairly the rewards from work and to share them with those who are not able to work".

Mr Cook, who appears to have looked down the barrel at the consequences for Labour if Mr Blair loses and decided they would be disastrous, intervened as the national executive urged local parties to hold individual membership ballots. Free papers and labels will be provided to facilitate that. Constituencies cannot be compelled to comply and the results will be only advisory, but Mr Blair's supporters believe most party members will back change and relatively few constituencies will refuse to allow a membership vote.

The move brought charges from the Defend Clause IV campaign that Mr Blair was "moving the goalposts" because he feared defeat in the constituencies without such ballots. Alan Simpson, secretary of the Campaign group, said it was "the politics of shambles" to decide on ballots so late, and an attempt to "stitch up" the result. He added that Mr Cook, whom he described as "probably the brightest and most independent-minded" of Labour's front-bench, had been put in the position of "defending the indefensible" when there was no alternative wording to Clause IV on the table.

nThe National Executive Committee decided by an 18-6 vote yesterday to appoint a new media and campaigning chief in the run-up to the next election. But Margaret Beckett, shadow health secretary, argued that the post, proposed by Tom Sawyer, Labour's general secretary, was so wide that the holder would find it impossible to apply him or herself properly to any one part, or all of it.

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