Labour activists want new leader before polls

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Grassroots Labour supporters have stepped up the pressure on Tony Blair to quit as leader before the local and regional elections in May, which are expected to be a disaster for Labour.

Activists from northern cities including Manchester, Nottingham and Lincoln are calling for the ruling national executive committee to establish an "orderly timetable" for elections for a new leader "early in 2007".

A number of constituencies have submitted the resolution to a party committee in charge of organising Labour's annual conference at the end of the month. They are demanding it is debated, and supporters say they have a good chance of forcing it through. The campaigners fear the elections in Scotland and Wales will be disastrous unless Gordon Brown takes over as leader early next year.

An organiser said: "This is saying Blair should go and sooner rather than later. It is a direct challenge to the control freaks in New Labour to see whether they are prepared to allow democracy to break out in the party."

Campaigners for an early leadership vote believe they have gained sufficient momentum through the constituency parties to make it difficult for the party's conference-arrangements committee to turn down their demands for Mr Blair's early departure to be debated at the Manchester conference.

The Labour MP for Nottingham South, Alan Simpson, said: "If Blair had any sense he would realise that the party conference ... offers the only platform from which he can declare his own departure ... and go. Anything after this will be a process in which he is simply hounded out of office. He faces a choice between clarity and vanity."

The committee will meet on Tuesday and it could leave the casting vote to Yvette Cooper, a minister in Ruth Kelly's department for Communities and Local Government, who is married to Ed Balls, a confidant of the Chancellor.

John Prescott has told senior party officials he wants the party to have a greater say over the timetable for the hand-over. The NEC will hold a meeting on Wednesday, after the decision, but the arrangements committee has autonomy over the conference programme.