The joy of politics - a chance to upset the spin doctors

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IN THE next week members will receive their ballot papers for the annual elections to Labour's National Executive Committee. Last year the whole process was dominated by the contest between Peter Mandelson and myself. It is the only time since Tony Blair became leader of the Labour Party that the members have been able to make a clear choice between Labour's traditional values and the politics of the Millbank Tendency, and faced with this choice the party members' views were clear. This year the rules have been changed to prevent any such embarrassment. Dennis Skinner, Diane Abbott and myself, along with other MPs, have been banned from standing in the constituency section.

The idea of excluding MPs from this section was originally suggested by the Labour Co-ordinating Committee (LCC), a small group that became a breeding-ground for those who have since gone off to profit from their access to government ministers as lobbyists. The LCC pointed out that, during previous Labour governments, local parties had registered dissatisfaction with government policies by electing left-wing MPs to the NEC, who then linked up with trade union representatives to oppose the pay freezes of the Wilson/Callaghan years.

Labour Party members have been told that the new constituency section on the NEC would provide a unique opportunity for rank-and-file members to be represented. MPs would still be able to stand for one of the three places now to be elected by Labour MPs and MEPs. In addition, a new Cabinet section will be appointed by the Prime Minister. Contrary to all the waffle about these changes extending democracy, it has rapidly become clear that the party establishment and a couple of right-wing trade union bosses were going to use their resources to try to take control of the new constituency section.

Following newspaper reports that a special unit was to be established by 10 Downing Street to try to influence the election, by employing students to telephone-canvass party members, I raised the issue at the NEC. I was assured that party officials in Millbank Tower would see to it that strict impartiality prevailed in the elections.

When the results of nominations were announced in July, it was clear that, broadly speaking, three slates had emerged. The so-called Labour First group, linked to trade unions such as the engineers and electricians', had six candidates, including a number of trade union officials. With spectacularly bad timing, it advertised its slate in the "cash for access" lobbyist Derek Draper's Progress magazine.

A rival, establishment-backed group calling itself "Members First" has also emerged. Its slate includes a minor TV celebrity, but it is dominated by retired trade union officials and local government bosses - even though both the unions and local government have their own NEC sections. This new grouping also ran into trouble almost immediately, when it was revealed that its key organiser was Ben Lucas, another former LCC lobbyist named in the "cash for access" affair.

In spite of the assurances we had been given at the NEC, unnamed "Millbank" sources were quoted in the press as backing the new group. Nonetheless, it looks highly possible that the rank and file will have their say, because nearly a third of all the constituency nominations went to candidates associated with the new centre-left grass-roots alliance. Backed by Dennis Skinner, Diane Abbott and myself, they are campaigning to defend the rights of individual members to influence policy and be free to select candidates for parliament and local councils.

With the establishment split on competing slates and a broad centre- left alternative emerging, the elections seemed likely to ensure that at least some socialists would get elected. However, press reports say that Millbank stepped in, this time "to bang heads together", with the result that a number of the competing establishment candidates have withdrawn in order to maximise unity against the centre-left grass-roots alliance.

Millbank spin doctors have tried to paint the alliance as hard left. But in fact it is a remarkably broad coalition. It brings together the mainstream Labour left, with left-of-centre Tribune supporters and people from the traditional, "Hattersley-ite" right.

The grass-roots alliance candidates include the Scottish Labour Party executive member Cathy Jamieson, the Tribune editor Mark Seddon, and the Birmingham City Councillor Andy Howell, who is also chair of the moderate Labour Reform group. They are standing with Christine Shawcroft and Pete Willsman, long-standing campaigners for party democracy. Finally, there is Liz Davies, an early victim of New Labour's intolerant control freaks, who, though barred as a parliamentary candidate in Leeds, subsequently proved through a successful libel action that the charges against her were untrue. Of course, she was not reinstated by the party machine.

Tony Blair is going to have a massive majority on the new NEC anyhow. He should have enough confidence in party members to tell the apparatchiks of the Millbank Tendency (whose only background is in student politics) that the party needs critical minds capable of anticipating problems with policies.

This will also be an issue in the parliamentary section, which will be elected at the annual conference. Back in June, Labour MPs were furious to have been approached by government whips and asked to sign nomination papers on which the names of the establishment candidates had already been typed in. The Labour MPs' backbench committee demanded, and secured, a commitment that this part of the NEC election should be elected by secret ballot. Dennis Skinner has been nominated for this section of the NEC by MPs across the spectrum of the party.

On the national executive Dennis Skinner has long been an independent voice, whose astute tactical suggestions have frequently been welcomed by the leadership, even though on other issues he has been in a minority of three with Diane Abbott and myself.

One of the reasons I love politics in general and the Labour Party in particular is that, given the chance, people have the unerring ability to produce results that confound the spin doctors. Both I and Diane Abbott fervently hope that party members are once again going to assert their independence and rights, as they did last year when they elected me instead of Peter Mandelson.