Blair looks unstoppable: Poll shows unexpected support among unions - Beckett opens way for 'dream tickets' to run

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The Independent Online
TONY BLAIR'S election as Labour Party leader was looking increasingly inevitable last night, following the first opinion poll of those entitled to vote.

An NOP survey for the Independent and BBC 2's Newsnight found that he holds a commanding lead among trade unionists who pay the political levy. They wield a third of the votes in Labour's new electoral college, and had been thought to be more hostile than MPs or individual party members to Mr Blair.

The survey finds that Mr Blair is backed by 37 per cent of levy-payers, well ahead of John Prescott (22 per cent) and Gordon Brown (21). Margaret Beckett (12) and Robin Cook (7) lag farther behind.

The poll, conducted by telephone among 502 levy-payers on Monday and Tuesday, squashes suggestions that Mr Blair's modernising views would damage his support among the 4.3 million trade union members who can vote in the leadership election.

The boost for Mr Blair came as Labour yesterday decided to hold the contest as soon as possible - announcing the result on 21 July rather than running a four-month campaign until October.

Mrs Beckett opened up the possibility of 'dream ticket' bids for the leadership and deputy leadership by announcing that any contest for her post as deputy should be held in July, at the same time as the leadership contest, rather than waiting until the party conference to see if there will be a challenge.

Her decision to put her job on the line in July enormously complicated the calculations of Labour's leadership contenders.

Her move - designed to end the leadership uncertainty rapidly and avoid the crippling expense of a second contest in the autumn - leaves Mrs Beckett the option of running for leader, deputy or both. But it presents other candidates, notably Mr Prescott, with a decision on whether to run as leader or stand simply as deputy, a post he has twice contested. He could run for both positions, but Bryan Gould's experience in the 1992 contest against John Smith suggests that to do so damages the chance of winning either.

Mr Blair must decide whether to forgo a running mate, attempt what some would see as moderniser-traditionalist 'dream ticket' with Mr Prescott, or support Mrs Beckett as deputy if she does not run as leader. One union leader yesterday even hoped it would allow a Blair-Brown ticket.

Mrs Beckett's move equally complicates the calculations of other potential candidates such as Mr Brown, Mr Cook and even Jack Cunningham, who yesterday said he was being pressed to stand. Her announcement surprised and even stunned Labour's national executive yesterday, Clare Short saying: 'We had a break and a cup of coffee as everyone tried to absorb it.'

The Independent/Newsnight poll undermines the view of Mr Brown's allies that he, rather than Mr Blair, would be best able to marshal union votes against Mr Prescott. NOP's figures show that in a straight fight Mr Brown and Mr Prescott are level pegging at 48 and 52 per cent respectively. However if the contest is between Mr Blair and Mr Prescott, the poll gives Mr Blair a clear 62-38 lead.

A four-to-one majority of the trade unionists polled rejects any change in the law that would restore the closed shop. In 1989, when he was shadow Employment Secretary, Mr Blair ended Labour's support for the closed shop, a stand that is helping rather than harming his reputation among union members today.

----------------------------------------------------------------- LABOUR LEADERSHIP ----------------------------------------------------------------- Percentages of support among levy-paying trade unionists Blair 37 Prescott 22 Brown 21 Beckett 12 Cook 7 -----------------------------------------------------------------

'Silent majority', page 6

Leading article, page 19

Andrew Marr, page 21

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