New Labour's newest campaign is based on immaturity and innuendo

Removing the right of the membership to select candidates could set a precedent for Westminster
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The Independent Culture
IN MONDAY'S Independent, Steve Richards asked: "why is Tony Blair so worried by Labour's hard left?" Yesterday, David Aaronovitch explained why: "Watch out Labour, the Trots are back with a vengeance". Oh dear. As I read David's article I thought I had been transported back in time to the Eighties. Old enmities die hard in the brave new politics, none more so than those of that dread beast, the ex-Communist student hack.

For those who aren't members of the Labour Party, I would point out that elections are taking place for six places on the Labour's National Executive Committee (NEC) to represent constituency parties. What's interesting about this, as Steve Richards implied, is that some people in the Labour Party are absolutely terrified that the left and centre left may win some of the places. What are they so afraid of?

One of the features of Labour's first year in office was that it was still acting as if it were in opposition. Ministers were busier sending out their minions to spin against their rivals than they were about working together. Labour's presentational skills were turned inwards. To his credit, Tony Blair understood this problem. His appointment of Jack Cunningham as the Arnold Schwarzenegger of the Cabinet was the act of an astute Prime Minister. Combined with the appointment of another "old Labour" stalwart - Margaret Beckett - as Leader of the House, Tony signalled a watershed. Within the party, though, the same level of maturity has not been reached.

MPs are now banned from standing in the constituency section, so that ordinary members can elect six from their own ranks to represent them directly. That, at least, was the rationale for preventing Labour MPs from standing.

Many suspected that the real reason was to stop prominent left-wingers from getting on to the NEC. Although it is true that MPs standing for election in the constituency section seemed like an anomaly to the outside world, the elections made it possible for party members to identify clear political choices. Some of the most important figures in the history of the party, such as Nye Bevan, participated on Labour's ruling body because of support from the constituencies.

Nonetheless, having created a section for the members it seems right that we should have the maturity to allow an election to take place whose outcome is determined by them. As I have pointed out repeatedly, the left, centre and centre-right have attempted to respond to the challenge of the new constituency section by standing a slate of candidates that has a clear democratic socialist platform.

It includes not only representatives of the left, but also representatives of more "mainstream" opinion because there is much that unites these strands. The spectacle of Roy Hattersley becoming a bogey figure for the control freaks of The Project is only the most high-profile embodiment of the sea change that has occurred.

I did not get elected to the NEC last year because there are more "hard left" members of the party than there are "Mandelsonites". I was elected because there is a meeting of minds between the left and mainstream organisations and newspapers such as Labour Reform and Tribune.

That is reflected in every local Labour Party up and down the country, around a commitment to democratic socialist principles, defence of membership participation in policy-making, and an adherence to the rights of party members to select candidates of their choice for elections. It may, as time goes on, find that it reflects itself in other policy areas.

The political basis of this alliance is the very reason it is being exposed to a sustained campaign of innuendo and attack. Over the seven days the media manipulation skills acquired in opposition were transformed into a vile parody. Tom Sawyer's behaviour last week, when he press-released a letter from Liz Davies - one of the left candidates - to the media, was a deliberate intervention into the elections. He lapsed out of neutrality and implied that support for the centre-left grass-roots alliance threatened a return to the bad old days of the Eighties. This, of course, is not the same Tom Sawyer whom I met on a train to Birmingham on his way to a left-wing meeting not long after the end of the miners' strike. This Tom Sawyer was hopping mad that Neil Kinnock had recently indicated that Thatcher's anti-trade union legislation would not be repealed. This Tom Sawyer was so annoyed that he said to me: "if this goes on we'll have to get rid of him and replace him with you!"

Tom's intervention was followed by two half-page advertisements in The Guardian and The Observer, placed by the right-wing "Members First" grouping. I am told that a one-page ad in The Guardian costs around pounds 16,500, so we can fairly reasonably assume that the "Members First" slate had a cool pounds 20,000 sitting around at the end of last week. An ad like that cannot appear without major trade union support. I am sure that Lord Bassam, leader of the "Members First" slate, will be keen to dissuade me of the view that trade unions are trying to control the constituency section, by making public the list of donors for these advertisements.

Lord Bassam's campaign now claims support from prominent members of the government, including Peter Hain. I do not believe that Peter, who is a long-standing advocate of libertarian democratic socialism, is likely to be supporting the full "Members First" slate. Indeed, when contacted by a Tribune journalist yesterday, Peter's office itself expressed "surprise" at this news.

The stops are being pulled out because what is at stake here is the right of the Constituency Labour Parties to elect their own section without Millbank dictating the outcome. Yesterday, one Millbank candidate, Diana Jeuda, attempted to distinguish her slate from the centre and left slate when she was quoted as saying: "when we are critical, mostly behind closed doors... we are more likely to be listened to." Diana's implication is clear: as a more loyal critic she will be able to protect the interests of the rank and file more effectively.

Last January the NEC discussed the selection of Labour's candidates for the European Parliament. Party members had been asked to say what kind of selection system they wanted. The majority of responses were opposed to the final ranking of candidates being made by committee, favouring instead a one-member-one-vote (OMOV) ballot. This was completely ignored. I pointed out that closed lists mean that voters would not know which candidates they were voting for and that removing the right of the membership to select candidates could set a precedent for Westminster. I moved an amendment that the final selection and ranking of candidates should be determined by an OMOV ballot of individual members.

Only Dennis Skinner voted with me. Twelve people voted against. Diana Jeuda abstained. But you don't know that, because it took place "behind closed doors". I know for a fact that unlike the "Members First" slate, Andy Howell, Mark Seddon, Christine Shawcroft, Cathy Jamieson, Pete Willsman and Liz Davies would have been another six votes on that NEC for the rights of members. And that is what some people are scared of.