Blair's allies shelve plan to contest NEC elections

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TONY BLAIR'S allies have abandoned plans to run a slate of candidates in the elections to Labour's ruling body amid fears of a grassroots backlash against the Prime Minister.

The rethink follows growing criticism inside the party of the "control freakery" by Labour's Millbank headquarters in London, which has been accused of influencing the choice of candidates for the forthcoming elections to the European Parliament and Scottish and Welsh assemblies.

Last year, left-wingers captured four of the six places representing local parties on the National Executive Committee (NEC), in what was widely seen as a big setback for Mr Blair.

His allies now admit that it was "counter-productive" for the loyalist Members First organisation to run candidates in the poll. It won only two seats, despite spending a reported pounds 100,000 on its campaign.

Privately, Blairites concede that Millbank was too closely associated with the moderate group. "Last year was not a success and we have no desire to repeat it," one party source said. Instead, Mr Blair's supporters are adopting a "softly, softly" strategy, in which they hope to oust or one two of the four left-wingers elected last year.

They are pinning their hopes on Lord Sawyer, who retired as Labour's general secretary last October. He is well liked, although left-wingers accused him of attacking their candidates last year. Another Blairite hope is Delyth Morgan, 37, who is chief executive of the breast cancer research charity Breakthrough. She said yesterday that she was " not standing on any slate" and that the party had "moved on" from its factional battles.

Nominations for the NEC poll closed yesterday and the contest has been brought forward from October to June - announcing the results during Labour's annual conference led to damaging headlines for Mr Blair in the last two years.

Mr Blair's critics, who stood under the banner of the centre-left Grassroots Alliance last year, are running a slate again despite the loyalists' U-turn. They hope to secure re-election for last year's winners, including Liz Davies, who was banned from being a parliamentary candidate in 1997 because of her left-wing views, and Mark Seddon, editor of Tribune newspaper.

Others hoping to keep their NEC seats are left-wingers Cathy Jamieson and Pete Willsman and Blairites Michael Cashman and Diana Jeuda.