Blair supporters move to quell backbench rebellion

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The Independent Online
Tony Blair's supporters fought back aggressively yesterday against the outbreaks of rebellion which refuse to die down while the Labour leader is away on holiday in Tuscany, writes John Rentoul.

Donald Dewar, Labour's social security spokesman, rejected the charge made by Roy Hattersley, the former deputy leader, in Saturday's Independent that the party was preoccupied with the concerns of the middle class at the expense of those of the poor. "The Labour Party, of course, wants a broad coalition of support on the basis of principle. We certainly don't want to be a party that looks to some narrow section of the population - middle class or other class," Mr Dewar said on GMTV.

Alan Johnson, of the Communications Workers' Union, said on ITN: "There's a feeling within the Labour Party in some circles that victory is a bourgeois concept and the only true objective of socialists is glorious defeat. I don't hold that view and neither does Tony Blair."

Mr Dewar also dismissed the accusation made by backbencher Richard Burden last week that power was centralised in the leader's "inner sanctum" which suppressed debate. "It's ludicrous for someone to say that Tony Blair is a centralist, that he's bringing all power into his own hands, when he's given more real power over selection of leaders, over policy matters, to ordinary members of the party. It's been one of the great democratic surges in British politics," he said.

Another back-bencher, Paul Flynn, MP for Newport West, yesterday supported Mr Burden's criticism of Labour's campaign in the Littleborough and Saddleworth by-election, which accused the Liberal Democrat victor of being "high on taxes and soft on drugs". Many Labour MPs were appalled by "such a base level of campaigning", Mr Flynn said, describing Peter Mandelson, Mr Blair's ally who ran the campaign, as "the prince of darkness".

Labour headquarter's crackdown on the local party in Walsall has also alarmed Labour councillors across the country. "When Tony Blair has a tight hold we will support that. But when it becomes a stranglehold we will fight back," Peter Greenwood, Labour chairman of the Association of District Councils, tells this week's Local Government Chronicle. Martin Doughty, Labour leader of Derbyshire County Council, said Mr Blair's office had also overreacted to stories about councillors' allowances. "Instead of having a dialogue with us, they have come to us with a big stick."

The row over the policies of Walsall's Labour council is set to continue tomorrow, when the leader, Dave Church, returns from a three-week holiday in India. Yesterday, members of the so-called "moderate" faction of Labour councillors called for their left-wing rivals to be expelled. Former "moderate" leader, Des Winn, said the party's suspension had achieved nothing and predicted that the left-wingers would press ahead with plans for radical devolution of power in Walsall to 54 neighbourhood committees.

The Labour leader interrupted his holiday over the weekend to issue a statement through his office insisting that he was unmoved by evidence of anxiety over the speed of change in the party. "There will be no let- up in the crusade to modernise and change the Labour Party so that it is best equipped to make the changes the country needs," the statement said.