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Critics of Labour sweep to the fore

A YEAR of bloodletting in the Labour party's educational wing has ended with a clean sweep in elections for members prepared to take an openly critical line on party policy.

The new leadership of the Socialist Educational Association says it is to take an "independent" line on education policy but denies it is distancing itself from the party leadership.

The SEA has been one of the largest groups affiliated to the Labour party. Just a year ago it had some 1,400 members, including two dozen MPs, among them the entire education and employment ministerial team, and Chancellor Gordon Brown.

But an often farcical year of internecine warfare marked by resignations and votes of no confidence has seen membership slump to just 800 as the association's leadership fell out over national party policy.

Now, in an unusually high turnout, its annual elections have seen a completely new executive elected - with sweeping gains by members from Staffordshire and Haringay in north London.

Tony Pearce, of Staffordshire, takes over as general secretary, the post vacant since Local Government Association education chair Graham Lane quit earlier this year in protest at the schism.

Another Staffordshire member, Peter Holland, is the new chairman, taking over from his political ally Max Morris, a former president of the National Union of Teachers. Mr Holland admitted that in the past year the SEA had been "out of the debate" because of its internal divisions.

"We are supportive of the Labour party - we're all members of the Labour party. We wish to preserve an independent mind," he said. "If we have points that are critical of ministers, we shall make them. But we don't set out in any way to be antagonistic."

He added: "It's not a question of Old Labour-New Labour. It's a matter of being supportive but able to speak our mind when necessary."

School standards minister Stephen Byers, who remains vice-president of the SEA, warned last year that if the association openly criticised the Government it would find itself out in the cold. Criticisms should be made in private.

MEP Robert Evans, European Labour party education spokesman and defeated candidate for vice-chair, said: "There's a very real danger that the SEA will become isolated when there is a role to be played as a think-tank, similar to the Fabian Society, developing ideas and initiatives.

"These people seem to have a different agenda to the Government and certainly won't be supportive of David Blunkett."

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