Britain Votes: Canavan out for revenge against the `wee cabal'

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The Independent Online
IT ONLY goes to show that sometimes even the control freaks at Millbank get it wrong. Labour's Westminster strategists thought that the veteran left-winger Dennis Canavan would quietly go away after he was expelled from the party.

Nothing could have been further from the truth and, standing as an independent, he has run the official Labour campaign ragged in Falkirk West, the constituency he has represented at Westminster for the past 24 years.

His campaign success rested largely on strong grassroots loyalty - Labour people did not like the idea of Ross Martin being parachuted into the constituency as the official Labour candidate.

It made for some tense moments during the hustings when the two men's paths crossed, like in Falkirk's main shopping centre. "New Labour all wear black suits. It means they look like crows or Jesuit priests," Mr Canavan said in a sarcastic dismissal of the Labour disciples, before bawling his old party's shortcomings all over the town centre.

He stood ramrod straight - and, of course, casually attired - while Mr Martin, 36, stood a few feet away pressing the flesh. He wore a brown sports jacket, but a hovering black-suited assistant bore out the Jesuit theory. Mr Martin was spinning in the finest tradition of New Labour. Spitting in the face of common sense, he insisted replacing Mr Canavan had been a smooth and easy business.

The unspun truth is that the local party has been ripped apart by New Labour's judgement that the outspoken left-winger was, despite a quarter of a century in Westminster, "not good enough" to run for the Scottish Parliament. Mr Canavan was expelled from the party last month after he put himself forward for election as an independent.

The once-united rank and file now glower at each other across the shopping precinct. The atmosphere could be cut with a knife. Local party members campaigned for Mr Canavan knowing they risked expulsion. Even Labour's old-timers say it is a chance they feel compelled to take. "I've been in the Labour Party all my life," says one elderly woman. "I'm just shattered by what they did to Dennis. I know the party needed updating but this madness." Like almost everyone else, the woman refused to give her name for fear of irritating the party.

Two elderly, life-long members of Labour confessed they also planned to vote for Mr Canavan. "I cannot tell you how this mess makes me feel," said one man. "It would start me swearing."

Mr Canavan also attracted support from non-Labour voters who cast their second vote for him. "They just feel Dennis has been badly treated," said Jim Lapsley who resigned as local party secretary to run Mr Canavan's campaign.

A branch chairman admitted the local party is in tatters but said it has been betrayed by Mr Canavan. "He promised us he would not resign and force us to choose between the party and the man," he said.

"No man is bigger than the party," piped up another canvasser. Mr Martin's campaign smile froze. A middle-aged canvasser agreed that the party is greater than any individual - does that mean he thinks the selection process was fair? "Oh no," he said loudly. "They [the party hierarchy] should never have forced candidates upon us."

The Jesuit assistant was swift. In a classic piece of damage limitation he quickly headed off the loose-mouthed canvasser to one side.