The Labour Party in Blackpool / Conference Notebook: Skinner marks returns to NEC by boycotting it

WITHIN an hour of die-hard leftwinger Dennis Skinner regaining his seat on the ruling National Executive Committee, his supporters were outside the Imperial hotel, Blackpool, picketing the newly elected NEC's annual booze-up.

Mr Skinner ceremoniously boycotted the reception, which was attacked by his hard-left Campaign Group friends for being sponsored by Marconi, the electronics group with world- wide defence contracts. To the Campaign Group, this amounted to 'blood money' being used to pay for the NEC's Bloody Marys.

Anyone wondering where the left has gone in the Blair Labour Party need only step out of the back of the Winter Gardens and inquire at 16 Leopold Grove, a terrace house where the Campaign Group has set up a Campaign 'network' office to produce daily conference bulletins.

The couple of activists clattering away at their computer keyboards report the left is alive and well in networks across Britain and is seeing a surge in support among the youth, who are protesting at the Criminal Justice Bill robbing them of the right to rave.

The young blood flowing into the left could raise a problem for Mr Blair. After clearing out Militant, the leadership has raised the upper age limit of its youth wing from 22 to 26, to recruit more young people. However, Campaign groupies predict it will be too left-wing for the leadership.

Leading the continual struggle, Alan Simpson, chairman of the Campaign Group of MPs, bemoaned the way that protest had been filleted from the Labour conference. 'We must argue for Labour to be a real opposition . . . not a loyal poodle to a bankrupt government,' he said.

After picketing the NEC, the left had an anti-Criminal Justice Bill fringe meeting, organised by Red Pepper, the left-wing magazine. Just to show that the left has not gone entirely on to the fringe, it is threatening to overturn the leadership tomorrow in a vote to abandon the Trident nuclear weapon system. That could give Mr Blair his first opportunity to repudiate a conference decision.

SOME Labour MPs attending the conference are contemplating the cost of parking their cars at train stations around the country after discovering that Railtrack has unceremoniously run what the popular press would describe as the MPs' gravy train into the buffers.

Railtrack, the Government's vehicle for privatising the railways, is refusing to recognise the British Rail parking passes which have enabled MPs to park their cars at stations for free while on constituency and Commons business.

Bryan Davies, the Labour MP for Oldham Central, complained to Railtrack and says he was told: 'Railtrack does not accept the commitments made by British Rail.' He is planning to write a protest letter to Bob Horton, the head of Railtrack.

He discovered he was not the only MP to have run into trouble with the Railtrack ruling. A Tory MP was also denied free parking at his local railway station. Oddly enough, the Conservative decided not to complain to Railtrack.

THE replacement of the old block vote system with the new block vote system is so complicated - it has to be worked out in percentages on a computer - that the leadership has warned delegates to expect delays in announcing results at the conference. Larry Whitty, the party's general secretary, said: 'It is part of the price you pay for democracy.'

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