The Labour Party in Brighton: Beckett attacks legacy of 'broken Tory promises': Delegates support motion calling for national referendum on electoral reform

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The Independent Online
MARGARET BECKETT, Labour's deputy leader, wound up the Brighton conference yesterday with an appeal to party campaigners to 'ram home the harsh lessons of Tory broken promises' and the need to start to build a new national confidence.

After a difficult week for Mrs Beckett, which started with her appearing less than wholehearted in support of John Smith's party democracy reforms, her closing speech attracted added interest.

She attacked Tory ministers as incompetent and cynical, dismissed Paddy Ashdown as 'a leader in search of a party' and emphasised once again Labour's revived commitment to full employment. In her speech, which received a standing ovation, Mrs Beckett said there had been no shortage of advice on the 'real' purpose of the party conference. 'Some have said our purpose is to distance ourselves from millions of ordinary British voters who choose to join a trade union.

'Others have said that our sole purpose must be to shed all our socialist values. Everything we stand for. And yet another purpose, it has been suggested, was to elect a new deputy leader. We did not ask for that advice, nor did we need it.'

An apparent difference over support for Mr Smith and Omov led to speculation - since denied - that Mr Prescott was set for Mrs Beckett's job.

In the final debate on party values, Mr Prescott thumped the table in support as delegates called for a reaffirmation of Clause IV of the party's constitution, with its commitment to common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange. The motion was carried, in a defeat for the party leadership.

Mrs Beckett predicted that after breaking promises not to put up National Insurance taxes, not to widen the scope of VAT and not to cut mortgage interest relief, the Tories were in for a stormy time at Blackpool next week.

'Skies will be dark . . . darkened by flocks of chickens coming home to roost - or will it be ravens gathering on the battlements?'

The focus of Labour's campaigns would be the need to stop the rot in Britain and start to build for the future. 'Stop the rot of endemic sleaze, corruption and deceit in government. Stop the rot in our public services, our run-down schools, hospitals and public transport. Start to build a new national confidence that we can reach agreement - with parents, governors, and teachers - on changes which would improve our schools . . . Start to build a new confidence that, with our European partners, we can work to make full employment a key objective of economic policy.'

John Smith's proposal for a national referendum on the method of electing MPs was endorsed by the conference yesterday, to the satisfaction of the party's electoral reformers.

But delegates also carried a motion resolving to uphold the first- past-the-post system for House of Commons elections. Though reformers judged the second vote 'unfortunate', the two decisions accurately reflect John Smith's personal position - persuaded of the case for a referendum, but currently backing the present system.

Welcoming the referendum decision, Jeff Rooker, chair of the Labour campaign for electoral reform, said: 'This is a gigantic step from four years ago and follows the courage of the party leadership in allowing the debate to begin.'

The referendum was supported by 45.5 per cent of conference votes to 42 per cent and the first- past-the-post (FPTP) system by 44.6 per cent to 35.3 per cent. Delegates also endorsed the Plant Commission recommendations for proportional representation voting for the European Parliament, for an elected second chamber in place of the House of Lords, and for a Scottish Parliament.