Blair facing grassroots revolts

Andrew Grice@IndyPolitics
Sunday 06 September 1998 23:02

DEEP DISQUIET among the Labour grass roots across the range of government policies is revealed in a report to be presented to the party's annual conference later this month.

The document, leaked to The Independent, discloses that party members oppose vital elements of the Government's education strategy. They are worried about Tony Blair's strong support for President Bill Clinton during international crises and want Robin Cook's "ethical foreign policy" to be given more teeth.

The report provides the first insight into the views expressed by grassroots Labour members during a new policy-making process that is designed to prevent a repeat of the conflict between the party and previous Labour governments.

Instead of the annual conference debating every subject each year, issues are being discussed behind closed doors by new policy commissions involving cabinet ministers, Labour's National Executive Committee, constituency parties and trade unions. Although the power of local parties to submit resolutions to the conference has been curbed, many have used the new policy- making machinery to protest about the actions of ministers.

The introduction of university tuition fees and scrapping of maintenance grants was very unpopular, with several constituencies warning that fees would discourage students from low income families. The decision to set up 25 education action zones, in which local authorities work with business to improve schools, was attacked by several parties as "privatisation by the back door."

Luton South warned: "The introduction of education action zones will lead to the loss of local democratic control of education, and to the privatisation of schools." There was some scepticism that the Government's plans to cut primary- school class sizes would be achieved on schedule.

Some local parties were angry at Mr Blair's insistence that 40 per cent of a workforce will have to take part in a ballot before trade unions win recognition rights. They are pressing for a simple majority of those voting to be enough.

There was also opposition to the pounds 3 an hour minimum wage to be introduced for 18 to 21-year-olds next year, which is 60p less than the adult rate, and calls for ministers to remove the element of compulsion from the New Deal programme for the jobless.

On foreign policy, there was hostility to Mr Blair's strong support for President Clinton, particularly over his hawkish line during the Iraq weapons crisis in February. The report says: "This caused considerable concern throughout the country, as demonstrated by the large number of resolutions received from the party against possible British military strikes and economic sanctions."

Mr Cook was pressed to beef up his "ethical foreign policy" by imposing punitive sanctions against Indonesia over its actions against the people of East Timor. Several parties protested about Britain selling arms to Indonesia, while there was also criticism of the Government's decision to spend pounds 147m on new Trident missiles.

Hostility was also expressed at the Government's failure to provide parliamentary time for a Bill to ban hunting with dogs. "The sensitivity and strong feeling on this issue was recognised by the commission," says the report.

There was also strong pressure for walkers to be given access to the countryside - another pledge Labour has not yet delivered.

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