Do the control freaks really want Labour to lose London?

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The Independent Culture
YESTERDAY'S INDEPENDENT reported that Tony Blair has decided to rein in the control freaks of the Millbank Tendency and allow some future measure of self-determination for the Welsh and Scottish Labour parties. This makes sense. It certainly would be counter-productive to continue to try to run every aspect of the Welsh and Scottish Labour parties from London now that both nations have assumed a measure of self-government. As devolution begins to change the face of British politics, it will inevitably change the way local political parties are run.

Unfortunately, this brave new dawn of tolerance is not to be extended to the London Labour Party as it prepares to select its candidates for next year's elections for the mayoralty and the new London assembly. Yesterday's meeting of Labour's National Executive Committee saw the party bosses vote down a simple proposal that those people who have been excluded from the panel of assembly candidates should have a further right of appeal.

The vetting of candidates for London's assembly has been the great unreported scandal of recent weeks. In a brilliant tactical manoeuvre, which shows that Labour spin doctors can still occasionally get it right, the sanitised list of hopefuls was issued to the press on the Friday that Lady Porter won her appeal on the homes-for-votes scandal and during the London nail-bombing campaign.

While we had expected all of the left-wing hopefuls to be barred from the list, the real shock came with the discovery that most of the leading black and Asian candidates had also been excluded and only 27 per cent of the list were women. The Labour Party had set up this new procedure - in which local Labour parties and trade unions were barred from nominating people to be included on the panel - on the basis that the new system would make it easier for women and ethnic minorities to come forward!

Unfortunately, any system based on self-nomination is likely to attract a disproportionate number of egotistical and hawk-eyed careerists, while excluding the vast number of women and ethnic minorities who never even see the adverts asking people to come forward.

Throughout the recent racist and homophobic nail-bombing campaign in London, the press constantly reported Lee Jasper and Kumar Murshid as leading representatives of the ethnic minorities. Amazingly, along with the noted black civil-rights lawyer Peter Herbert all three have been told they are not fit to represent black Londoners in the new assembly. In fact, the only well-known black face to survive the secretive procedures of the selection vetting panel is Trevor Phillips.

The partiality of the vetting panel that was set up by Labour's NEC was clear from the start, when none of the four representatives of the Grassroots Alliance was allowed to serve on it. But even hardened old cynics like myself have been shocked by the bias and double standards exercised behind closed doors by these party apparatchiks.

Lee Jasper was told he could not stand as there had recently been a break in his party membership, but Kathryn Smith has been included on the panel even though it has been reported that her Labour Party membership lapsed so long ago that she ceased to be a member at the same time when she chaired the panel that recommended establishing the vetting committee, which - surprise, surprise - has decided that her lapse of membership should not count against her.

Presumably some candidates failed to answer correctly the question: "Do you support the bombing of Serbia?" As one who has supported the Government on this policy, I can see no point at which this becomes a relevant issue for someone fighting a local government election in London. In the past, the Labour Party's rules forbade local party members from asking candidates for the local council any questions on international policy issues. Even more alarming is the fact that many candidates have been rejected on the grounds that they do not have "sufficient life experience".

One of the victims who fell at this little hurdle was Christine Shawcroft, who has managed to serve two terms on Tower Hamlets council while raising a family and being a highly respected schoolteacher in Newham. She was also only narrowly defeated as a candidate of the Grassroots Alliance at last year's NEC elections, and is widely expected to be successfully elected to the NEC this year.

The fact that Labour's leadership is not prepared to hear appeals from people who have been treated so scandalously does not bode well for an open and democratic selection of Labour's candidate for mayor.

Indeed, with less than a year to go until the election itself, perhaps the most amazing aspect of yesterday's NEC meeting was that they have still not drawn up any plans to elect a candidate. Yet, in the heady first weeks of the new Labour Government, Tony Blair spoke with real passion about his desire to see the newly elected mayor of London standing at his side as a symbol of a new Britain in the new millennium as the Prime Minister opens the midnight ceremony down at the Dome on 31 December 1999. Sadly, it seems that this priority slipped down the Government's wish- list once I took the lead in the polls.

Nothing that was said at yesterday's NEC suggests that the Millbank Tendency has drawn the correct lessons of Labour's mixed local election results earlier this month. In his contribution to the discussion, Tony Blair blamed "unpopular local Labour Party leaders" for our worst results, but it transpired that he was thinking of one or two local Labour council leaders rather than Alun Michael in Wales.

Labour's failure to win a majority in the new Welsh Assembly was one of the most stunningly bad results in our entire history, with dramatic swings against Labour in the Rhondda and Islwyn constituencies. Every MP I have spoken to reported that the (successful) attempt to impose Alun Michael over Rhodri Morgan has left a legacy of bitterness which denied us a majority in the Assembly. One minister with an unbroken record of loyalty expressed his concern that we should not repeat this mistake in London next May. Does the Labour Party's leadership really want to do so, and defeat me not fairly, by argument, but by bending the rules? And open up the ghastly possibility of letting in Lord Archer as Mayor of London? I do hope not.