Blair in assault on Old Labour

Andrew Grice,Colin Brown
Monday 21 June 1999 23:02 BST

TONY BLAIR plans to isolate Old Labour under sweeping party reforms after being warned that Labour's "ramshackle" machine could jeopardise its general election prospects.

A scathing internal Labour report, leaked to The Independent, has warned Mr Blair that constituencies parties are "dysfunctional", suffer from "paralysis" and spend almost all their time talking to themselves rather than ordinary people.

"We have a strong, positive branding at national level," said the document. "But we are badly let down by a very poor high street presence. Indeed, the majority of local Labour parties are more like Trotters Independent Traders [from BBC TV's Only Fools and Horses] than Marks & Spencer ... We are a ramshackle confederation of market traders."

The report proposed a "New Labour" solution to motivate voters and party members in Labour's traditional heartlands, a problem causing concern in Downing Street after the party's poor performance in this month's European elections.

Controversially, the document urged a "radical overhaul" of the party to isolate the left. "It would excite and enthuse our own membership," it said. "Done correctly, it will empower modernising forces within the party and marginalise Old Labour."

The hard-hitting report by David Evans, Labour's regional director in the North-west, was written before the European elections, but has been discussed since by senior officials at the party's Millbank headquarters planning Labour's fightback. "This should be the blueprint for the way forward," one said yesterday. Today Mr Blair will defy his critics by denying he is out of touch with Labour's core voters. But he will make it clear there will be no attempt to switch Labour's appeal from the coalition, including the middle classes, which ensured its landslide victory in 1997.

In Birmingham to mark the 100,000th young person to get a job after leaving the New Deal scheme, Mr Blair will say: "I see this nonsense written in the media about the electorate as though policies on jobs appeal to one section of the community and policies on enterprise and the economy to another. New Labour was elected by people of all ages and backgrounds and will continue to serve people of all ages and backgrounds including those who didn't vote for us at all."

But Derek Foster, Labour's former chief whip, warned Mr Blair last night that he could lose the next general election if he ignored the party's heartlands. "Every political party can lose, even with a majority of 180, if you don't listen continually to the people," he told BBC Radio.

Blairite ministers say Labour performed better in the European elections where local parties were run by modernisers than in Old Labour strongholds, a view disputed by the left.

Unless party members become "active participants" instead of "passive bystanders", Mr Evans warned, the party would be "singularly ill-equipped to engage with the wider community in anything like the way necessary for sustained electoral success".

He said the party's structure was "flawed", largely unchanged since 1918. He recommended waiving membership fees and abolishing general committees in favour of all-member meetings to discuss policy. This would enrage left-wing activists, who often dominate the committees.

Enfield Southgate, where Stephen Twigg defeated Michael Portillo in 1997, is the first constituency Labour party to disband its general committee. A Labour spokesman said last night there were "no plans" to force other local parties to follow suit, but they would be encouraged to experiment with all-member meetings. One minister said yesterday that Labour should enhance its local policy forums, which offer party members an input into government decision-making but have been criticised as "talking shops."

"The policy forums must be reinvigorated and made a genuine two-way process. Without this, abolishing the committees would only add to the alienation of party members," he said.

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