Blair faces defeat by left rebels

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TONY BLAIR is heading for an embarrassing defeat at Labour's annual conference later this month, with left-wingers set for victory in elections to the party's national executive committee.

Figures compiled at Labour's Millbank headquarters suggest that left- wingers will capture four of the six seats representing constituency parties on the NEC, with Blair loyalists winning just two.

Those set to win election include Liz Davies, the former Islington councillor vetoed by the Labour leadership as the party's general election candidate in Leeds North East because of her hard-left views.

The looming snub to Mr Blair emerged as Tom Sawyer, Labour's general secretary, appealed to the Prime Minister to tackle, in his keynote speech to the Blackpool conference, the perception he has become "a bit detached" from his own party.

In an interview with The Independent, Mr Sawyer urged the Labour leader to answer allegations of "cronyism" by rejecting claims by the former lobbyist Derek Draper that there were "17 people who count" in the Government, including several of Mr Blair's backroom advisers.

Mr Sawyer said Labour members "want to be reassured that the most important people in the party are its elected representatives, its MPs, members of the Cabinet, people who the rank-and-file members put their trust in to work with Tony Blair and support Tony Blair". And he added: "They don't want to see a broad range of hangers-on who it is alleged have more influence than the elected representatives."

Labour sources say many of the party's 385,000 members are reluctant to support all the candidates running on a pro-Blair ticket in the NEC elections. They do not believe the Prime Minister should have a monopoly on the party's ruling body and want to elect "some people with different views".

Some insiders believe that the leadership, which has launched repeated attacks on the left-wing candidates, has made a tactical mistake by turning the NEC elections into a "trial of strength" that Mr Blair cannot win.

According to estimates by officials at Labour headquarters, left-wingers are set to top the poll. In first place at present is Mark Seddon, editor of Tribune newspaper, with Cathy Jamieson, a left- wing member of Labour's Scottish executive, running second. Also on course for election are Ms Davies and Pete Willsman, both put forward by the Centre-Left Grassroots Alliance.

The only two candidates running on the Blairite Members First ticket who look likely to win are Michael Cashman, the actor and gay rights campaigner, and Diana Jeuda, an official with the shopworkers' union Usdaw, who has served on the NEC for 11 years.

Mr Blair's allies admit privately they are gloomy about the moderates' prospects. Supporters say they are meeting strong resistance when they appeal to members to "vote for Tony Blair". One admitted: "They don't see what's wrong with letting democracy take its course and why he always wants to have it all his own way."

In a speech last night, Mr Blair insisted that "a strong party is essential to a strong government". And he told critics that his reforms to the party's policy-making machinery would "forever slay the dragon of Labour disunity".

But the Prime Minister is facing another setback today, with a warning of the likelihood of industrial unrest this winter. John Edmonds, leader of the GMB general union and this year's TUC president, says the clampdown on public-sector pay is "hurting people" and warns that strike action would make a mess of the aim for high-quality education and other services

He told New Statesman magazine: "It really does look as if we are heading towards big trouble and it's going to be very disruptive for everybody. We are not looking for a fight, but the members feel they are being pushed into a corner."

Mr Edmonds praised Mr Blair and Peter Mandelson, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, but criticised Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, and his spin doctors. "We have had a problem with Gordon. Every time he has met us, we've suffered from an extended spinning period in advance when the world at large has been told that what we were going to say to him was rubbish," Mr Edmonds said.