I won't be gagged by the control freaks
SO THERE is to be an unprecedented "code of conduct", or what has already been tagged a gagging clause, for new members of Labour's ruling National Executive Committee. I read about it in the newspapers before having a chance to read the offending document myself. Should it be endorsed, I, as a member, would be prevented from speaking to other journalists about NEC business before consulting the party's press officers. They would subsequently speak for the overwhelmingly Blairite NEC "as a whole".

I have already informed Labour's new general secretary, Margaret McDonagh, that I have no intention of releasing any confidential papers to anyone, nor discussing their content prior to meetings.

But I have also made it clear that I have every intention of speaking my mind. This was why I was elected. To do otherwise would be to accept that I had joined some Masonic club whose members communicate by semaphore and burn the flags afterwards.

My commitment is to the Labour Party and the democratic socialist principles of its majority, and not to what increasingly gives an appearance of being a narrow Christian Stalinist cult.

For it is not the election of a handful of left-wingers to the NEC that is beginning to worry the voters, it is the antics of the over-zealous control-freak tendency. If they are not checked, they risk throwing away elections for the Welsh Assembly and for London's Mayor.

But the gags are at last slipping from some sections of the Parliamentary Labour Party. Last Wednesday evening in the Commons, groups of Labour MPs could be seen poring over bad photocopies of the Tony Blair/Paddy Ashdown statement on extending the remit of the Cabinet's Joint Consultative Committee.

The Liberal Democrats are to be brought further into the fold. Soon Mr Ashdown and Menzies Campbell may join the Cabinet. "If we are not careful," said one senior Labour backbencher, "it may soon be a case of New Labour means No Labour."

Others were more sanguine about how far the two leaders dare go without risking schism. Still, many were furious that they had, as usual, been the last to learn of what was being planned. "There's been no consultation with us, the trade unions or at the party conference," said one northern MP. Had he and others only but realised, similar voices of alarm could be heard from Liberal Democrat MPs meeting further along the committee corridor.

For Tony Benn this was history repeating itself for the third time in a century. From the Ramsay MacDonald national government to Roy Jenkins' first attempt to break Labour with the short-lived SDP, to this - a similar operation, conducted in stealth, but aided by a truly awesome machinery of centralised party control. The reality is that the new politics of "inclusion" are quite exclusive of the traditional Labour Party and the trade unions.

Mr Blair, Mr Ashdown and, perhaps, soon the pro-EMU Conservatives Kenneth Clarke and Michael Heseltine, may be inexorably set upon a government of national unity. This new unity is already based on a shared view of the economy and the welfare state, but it could also be based upon an early referendum on the single currency and an adoption of the Jenkins Commission proposals soon after the next election. Even the language of the two leaders, their insistence on governing in the "national interest", their belief in "one nation", has eerie echoes from previous realignments on the right.

Many of those same Labour MPs meeting in anxious groups that night were also speculating on their ultimate fate. The sifting and screening mechanisms that are in place everywhere else in the country are coming to Westminster. The format may be different, but many of the more pessimistic believe that they will be deselected, in the same way as most left-wing, anti- EMU Labour MEPs already have been.

"The purge is on,"one seasoned BBC Westminster observer told me, "and they know it." But is that really what Labour's voters want?

There are few issues closer to the hearts of real Labour people than that of democracy. That is why there is such consternation at the shock moves in Westminster last week and the imposition of partisan scrutiny panels in Scotland, Wales and London; panels that can override the wishes of the membership.

When Peter Mandelson addressed a seminar on European integration and national sovereignty in Bonn earlier this year, mouths reportedly dropped wide open when he uttered this, the most extraordinary of statements to be made by a contemporary British politician in recent years: "It may be," he confided to his audience, "that the age of pure representative democracy is passing away."

Representative democracy cannot be allowed to wither, neither can it be allowed to atrophy into a raw patronage to be doled out by oligarchs. Time, then, to get rid of those gags.

Mark Seddon is editor of 'Tribune'