Blair's secret purge of MEPs

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The Independent Online
AS THE Government faced an unprecedented constitutional battle with peers over the European elections voting system, an internal party document disclosed that several "old Labour" MEPs will be sacked.

The report, leaked to The Independent, threatens to embroil Tony Blair in another "control freakery" row. It reveals that Labour expects to suffer big losses in next June's elections to the European Parliament and suggests that while many Blair loyalists will keep their seats, dissidents and older Euro MPs will lose their jobs in Strasbourg because they have been placed too low on the party's "pecking order" of candidates.

In the Lords, peers defied the Government by 261 votes to 198 to reject the 'closed lists' system for the European elections which allows the party to decide which candidates should get seats in the European Parliament. The Prime Minister rejected the crushing defeat as "an affront to democracy". Ministers claimed the rebellion would eventually be seen off, either by forcing the European Parliamentary Elections Bill through the Lords later this week or reintroducing the measure in the next parliamentary session, which starts on Tuesday.

Labour leaders have consistently denied claims of a purge of independent- minded European MPs. But the leaked document, circulated to officials at Labour's Millbank headquarters in London, will give further ammunition to the Prime Minister's critics. They are already angry about his alleged interference in the selection of Labour candidates for London mayor and for the Scottish and Welsh assemblies.

The report forecasts that Labour, which won 62 seats in the last European elections in 1994, will hold only 34 after next June's poll - a significant setback for Mr Blair. The main beneficiaries would be the Liberal Democrats, whose number of MEPs would jump from two to 10. The Tories, who currently hold 18 seats in Strasbourg, would win only four more.

Officials at Millbank said yesterday the actual results could be even worse for Labour. They insisted the figures, compiled by Adamson Associates, a European public affairs consultancy, were "very optimistic" as they were based on current opinion poll ratings. Officials believe the party's commanding lead may be cut by next summer, especially if the country's economic problems worsen.

Under the 'closed list' system of proportional representation, people will be able to vote for a party and not for individual candidates, so the parties' rankings in effect decide which candidates become MEPs.

The report predicts that at least eight Labour MEPs seeking re-election will not hold their seats under the new system because they have been placed too low down the approved list. Privately, Labour officials believe up to 12 sitting MEPs could lose. In Strasbourg last night, the document was dubbed "Blair's hit-list" by one Labour MEP. He said: "This proves what we have suspected. It is now crystal clear there is a purge."

Ken Coates, the left-wing MEP for Nottinghamshire North and Chesterfield, expelled from the Labour Party in January, said: "This shows the whole operation is run by control freakery. Anyone who is "off message" is being dumped." Labour officials denied the charge, insisting the system would result in more women and ethnic minority candidates being elected.

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