Blair rounds on party dissidents in `control' row

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TONY BLAIR hits back today at the growing criticism that he is a "control freak" and attacks his Labour opponents as a "small minority" who are giving succour to the Tories.

Writing in The Independent, the Prime Minister declares that he will maintain the "strong leadership" and discipline needed to prevent Labour reverting to a party whose bitter divisions consigned it to the electoral wilderness in the 1980s.

Mr Blair's uncompromising stance angered Labour left-wingers. They insisted the concern about "control freakery" was widely shared throughout the party and would damage it in the eyes of voters.

Last night, a new controversy erupted when the Labour leadership was accused of "rigging" the system for choosing the party's prospective leader of the new Welsh Assembly to boost the prospects of Alun Michael, the Secretary of State for Wales, who is Mr Blair's favoured candidate.

The Welsh Labour Party decided yesterday that an electoral college of trade unions, constituency members and MPs, Euro MPs and assembly candidates will be held on 20 February. Supporters of Rhodri Morgan, the maverick MP opposed by Mr Blair, claimed that the election would give four trade union leaders as much influence as 25,000 party members in Wales. Blair loyalists hope the unions' votes could tip the balance in Mr Michael's favour.

Officials at Labour's Millbank headquarters are bracing themselves for a new backlash as they draw up plans to choose a new list of candidates for next June's elections to the European Parliament.

The poll is almost certain to be fought on the first-past-the-post system after William Hague's announcement yesterday that the Tories would continue to block the Government's attempts to bring in proportional representation.

Labour has already selected its candidates for a PR system, which allowed the leadership to place several "old Labour" Euro MPs low on the party list, leaving them with little or no chance of being elected. Now party officials will try to stop the "old guard" representatives in Strasbourg being chosen to fight winnable seats.

Left-wing grassroots activists are mobilising to throw a lifeline to the Euro MPs who had been dropped by Mr Blair. "We want to give him a bloody nose," one leading opponent said last night. "We will ask ordinary members to send a message that the control freakery has gone too far."

But Mr Blair makes clear in today's article that such criticism will not deflect him. He accuses the Tories of branding him a "control freak" because their previous charges of incompetence and arrogance had not stuck. "Our opponents have had some help from a small minority in our party who either never signed up to the New Labour programme on which we fought and won the election, or can't manage to shake off the culture of opposition," he writes.

"If the charge is wanting our party to be successful, and our government to continue concentrating all its energy on delivering our promises, then I plead guilty. And if that means wanting us to be a modern, disciplined party with a strong centre, I'd like that offence to be taken into account as well."

The Prime Minister insists he has the backing of the majority of Labour's members: "They, too, are determined that our party won't return to the factionalism, navel-gazing or feuding of the Seventies and Eighties, no matter how much a few people long for those heady days of electoral disaster."

Mr Blair insists the controversial "closed list" system for the Euro elections, under which people can vote only for a party and not an individual candidate, "is not some Stalinist voting procedure I invented but one used already by two-thirds of EU citizens in these elections".

Mr Blair also denies that the method under which Labour will choose its candidate to be the new Mayor of London has been designed to block Ken Livingstone, the left-wing MP for Brent East. He insists the "tried, tested and fair system" was chosen by the London Labour Party.