Focus: The drive to make good Blair babies of them all

Events in London, Scotland and Wales have left Labour's puppeteers exposed, with their insistence on 'discipline' in danger of backfiring

CARTOONS of sheep will appear on buses in Nottinghamshire country lanes this week with the words "Dolly MEP" written under each identical image. This is the work of Ken Coates, the Independent Member of the European Parliament who resigned the Labour whip in disgust at the party's attempt to weed out rebels. He believes his former colleagues are clones.

But the sheep could have been put up in London by Ken Livingstone, the MP for Brent East, who has been blocked in effect from standing as Labour's candidate for mayor because he is too left-wing. They could have been displayed in Cardiff by Rhodri Morgan, the potential leader of the Welsh Assembly regarded as a "loose cannon" by the Labour leadership. They could have been posted in Edinburgh by Dennis Canavan, forced to stand as an Independent candidate for the Scottish Parliament because Labour thought him unsuitable. They could even have been dispatched by members of the party's own ruling National Executive Committee who were warned that they should consult the press office before speaking to the media.

For a party obsessed by control, events of last week got rather out of hand. Rebels have been rising up from north, south, east and west. And - what is worse - they have exposed the puppet-strings that lead to the master trying to operate them from Labour headquarters at Millbank Tower. The spotlight was turned from the dissenters themselves to the "Stalinist" tendency, the "control freakery" of the "thought police" who were attempting to shut them up. "Mr Blair demands complete uniformity from New Labour's elected representatives," Mr Coates said. "Westminster is packed with obedient robots."

In opposition, Labour's super-efficient, pager mentality was almost endearing. Everyone joked about the bleepers decorated with a red rose, and the requirement for aspiring Blairites to shave off their beards. The push for power made everything acceptable. But in government, it somehow seems more sinister.

The control-freak tendency appears to have become more prevalent, although it could just be an optical illusion caused by the greater coverage Labour now receives. MPs have been put under strict disciplinary codes, which allow them to be punished if they "bring the party into disrepute". The sycophantic questions from the android Blair babes have got beyond a joke.

Candidates for European, Scottish and Welsh elections have to be approved by HQ. Now there are plans to draw up an approved list for Westminster, from which constituencies will be encouraged to choose their candidate. It is even possible that sitting MPs will eventually have to be vetted before every election to check that they are still "on side".

THIS IS reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher's obsession with whether or not people were "one of us". Voters in London rushed to support Livingstone's right to stand for mayor. It was not that they necessarily wanted Red Ken to win, they simply felt everyone should have an equal chance to compete.

Even loyal Blairites are getting worried about the high-handed attitude of some at Downing Street and Millbank Tower. One New Labour minister expressed concern last week that the Prime Minister sounded "arrogant" and "out of touch" in a Today programme interview in which he defended the need for party discipline. Another member of the Cabinet said they did not understand why the leadership was so determined to stop the "perfectly OK" Mr Morgan gaining power in Wales.

The grassroots activists are angrier. Resentment dates back to the NEC elections, when party members were asked to back a slate of Blairite candidates over a group of left-wingers. Activists then ensured that four of the left-leaning Grassroots Alliance got on. But the convergence of events last week has made things worse. "The leadership really misjudged things," one loyal New Labour devotee said. "They're losing support and that really matters. These are the people who go out on the doorstep during the election campaigns."

The Labour leadership finds the party on the ground hardest to control. Tony Blair does not really understand it - he bonds not with the party but directly with "the people" out in the country. He sees himself as the Prime Minister, not a Labour leader, and believes his role is to modernise the party so as to make it fit to govern. "Tony doesn't owe anybody anything, he's an incredible loner," one friend said. "Gordon Brown's got a clique in the party, he has depended on the unions, but Tony doesn't. It's his great strength and weakness. He hasn't got a network in the party to influence things, so he has to try and control it from the centre."

Most Labour insiders agree that the "control culture" comes directly from Mr Blair. Friends say that he is almost obsessively disciplined himself - he is tidy, eats healthily, prepares minutely for interviews. "Yes, he's a control freak, but there's a purpose behind it," one Blairite minister said. "There's an absolutely overwhelming fear that he's going to lose the next election because the party is split."

The tone may be set from on high but the message is sometimes interpreted over-enthusiastically by Mr Blair's disciples, the younger generation, the advisers who hate Old Labour with a vengeance because they only knew it once it had all gone wrong. The Prime Minister never saw the "gagging" memo to NEC members - it was written by Margaret McDonagh, the incoming Labour general secretary. Mr Livingstone is con- vinced that it is not Mr Blair but the "Downing Street kids" who are out to get him.

The frenzy of control-freak activity has been encouraged by insecurity among the new boys and girls on the block. There are growing tensions between the apparatchiks at Downing Street and Millbank Tower; relations are becoming strained between the women who run the Prime Minister's office; the great New Labour "golden couples" - romances begun in the carefree days of opposition - are beginning to split up. The party activists, many of whom joined straight from university in the early 1990s, are not enjoying the move into government. They do not like dealing with civil servants and wading through red tape. The team that worked brilliantly around a single table in Millbank Tower has been literally separated across Whitehall.

The move into power has also removed one of Mr Blair's best weapons from his armoury. John Prescott is so busy dealing with the rail network that he has no time to fulfil his traditional role of keeping the party on side. Jack Cunningham, who is meant to help smoothe over the internal differences, is too busy "enforcing" government legislation. Ministers are crying out for the Prime Minister to get on with creating the promised new role of party chairman - something he does not want to do until Northern Ireland is sufficiently stable for Mo Mowlam to take the job.

AS THE counter-spin operation got under way this weekend, Fraser Kemp, the MP for Houghton and Washington East, who speaks the mind of the leadership, said discipline was crucial to avoid a return to the internal rows of the 1970s and 1980s. "We shouldn't be looking into crystal balls when you can read the history books - people have taken just 18 months in government to forget 18 years of opposition," he said.

Mr Blair knows that he has created a schizophrenic party and he is determined that the clean-cut Dr Jekyll should win over the Oxfam-clad Mr Hyde. He has put strict discipline codes into place to ensure that this happens. But they are in danger of backfiring. The Prime Minister could find that he ends up with Rhodri Morgan running Wales, Ken Livingstone in charge in London, and Dennis Canavan elected in Scotland - and all three will not only be in place, they will be bitter. The control-freak tendency could turn occasional sniping into full-scale three-way war.

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