`Infantile' MEPs get scolding from Blair Labour leader attacks `discourtesy' of pro-Clause IV advertisement before issui ng warning to Shadow Cabinet

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Indy Politics
Tony Blair met Labour Euro-critics of his Clause IV plans head-on yesterday as he angrily accused dissident MEPs of blunting the party's new year offensive with "infantile incompetence" and gesture politics.

The Labour leader told a private meeting of the 62-strong European Parliamentary Labour Party that those behind Tuesday's front-page Guardian advertisement attacking reform were guilty of a "gross discourtesy". The idea that Labour should simply make additions to the "common ownership" provision - as up to half the EPLP have been arguing - was "laughable" in 1995, a deeply annoyed Mr Blair declared.

His attack on them came before, on his return to London, he firmly told Shadow Cabinet members that front-benchers must watch their public statements much more carefully after the New Year embarassment over VAT on school fees, a possible graduate tax, and other examples of what Mr Blair's office has attacked as "policy on the hoof". With Labour being treated as a government in waiting, all policy statements had to be checked, and all tax and public spending questions referred to the office of Gordon Brown, the shadow Chancellor, he said.

At his meeting in Brussels, Mr Blair was heckled by only four MEPs, but the party split appears not to have been healed, despite 36 of the Euro-MPs, including five of those who signed the original advertisement, writing to the Guardian yesterday to back Mr Blair's initiative. Critics of the change claimed that most of the 32 MEPs who had opposed replacing Clause IV had not changed their minds after listening to him.

Glenys Kinnock, the recently elected MEP for South Wales East, who strongly supported Mr Blair's reading of the riot act to the rebels, claimed, however, that a number were poised to peel away.

Mr Blair said: "I will not dwell on recent events other than to say that I believe many party members and supporters will be dismayed, as will many of those desperate for a Labour government, that our New Year offensive was blunted."

Speaking with the backing of Wayne David, the EPLP leader in Brussels, Mr Blair said: "On Monday we launched a major offensive with our proposals for change ... the next day I was giving a keynote speech on Europe. It was entirely overshadowed by what I regard as a gross discourtesy. There can be no excuse for the infantile incompetence with which this blunted our New Year message."

At one point, Mr Blair told David Hallam, an old friend and MEP for Hertford and Shropshire, to "grow up" for suggesting Labour should give a commitment to renationalising public utilities that had been privatised. Labour could not make a commitment it could not afford to meet, Mr Blair said.

Disputing that changing Clause IV was a "distraction", as some claimed, Mr Blair said the same point had been made over purging Labour of Militant, and over one member, one vote, and reforming policy-making: "It is not a serious argument against what we are proposing."

It was laughable to believe that Clause IV could simply be added to as the 21st century approached and every socialist party in the world had recognised and embraced change, he said.

An unrepentant Stan Newens, MEP for London Central, who typifies all that is not New Labour, said afterwards: "Those of us who put the issue forward stand four-square behind all that we said."

Growing fears, page 33