Ministers at risk of losing touch with party, chairman warns

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The Chairman of the Labour Party said that there was a danger of Tony Blair and his ministers becoming "efficient technocrats", out of touch with the public and the party's activists.

Charles Clarke, a cabinet minister, said the Government would commit "political suicide" if it allowed a gulf to develop between it and the Labour Party. "A breakdown in relationships between the Government and the party from which it comes is a serious risk," he said. "My job is to ensure that that [breakdown] does not happen."

He added: "It would be a political disaster if we were simply to be mere technocrats trying to run the Government but without having a wide- ranging policy debate on the issues facing the country.We see it as critically important that, as we go through this Parliament up to the next general election, we are not simply presenting ourselves as being good at running the Government."

Mr Blair shares Mr Clarke's concern that the Labour Party could become moribund unless it is given more influence over government policies. The Prime Minister told a private meeting of activists last week: "While past Labour governments fell because of internal rows, the problem now is not a rebellious party, but an inert party."

Yesterday Mr Clarke announced a shake-up of Labour's policy-making machinery in an attempt to give activists more input into the party's manifesto for the next general election. The process will also involve the public, professional groups, academics and think-tanks. He conceded that the party policy documents produced in the previous Parliament were simply stating the Government's position.

The Labour chairman admitted that "serious alarm bells" were ringing because of the state of the party. "There is no question that in many parts of the country, particularly in some of the areas where we are strongest electorally, the level of activity in the local party is pretty low and membership has in some cases declined seriously." He said that many members, if asked, "What do you get from membership of the party?" would reply, "Not very much."

Documents to be published in January will set out the policy issues that a third consecutive Labour government would face.