David Blunkett, Secretary of State for Education and Employment, led cabinet support for six candidates who are standing against the left-wing Grassroots Alliance, with a warning against Labour returning to "knee- jerk" opposition. "It's time to put behind us the divisions and the conflict of the past and with them, those who would attempt to return us to it," he said.
Glenda Jackson confirmed that Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, and Frank Dobson, Secretary of State for Health, also would oppose the Grassroots Alliance slate, which includes Liz Davies, who was involved in a dispute with the leadership over the use of a telephone ballot.
The three cabinet ministers and a new group called Members First are backing six candidates, including Michael Cashman, the gay-rights campaigner, to defeat the left for NEC seats at the party conference.
Ms Jackson, a transport minister, launching the right's campaign, denied left-wing claims that her group was a front organisation for Tony Blair and the leadership. "It most certainly is not," she said. "It has come from within the membership itself. It has come from members of the Labour Party who wished to come together to go forward with further terms of government by our party."
The Labour leadership is keeping its distance from the elections to avoid a constitutional row with the left, with the attendant risk that support for "approved candidates" could prove counter-productive. But it is an open secret that senior party figures would like to see the hard-left slate defeated.
Mr Cashman said of the dangers of the Grassroots Alliance wresting control: "If we are not careful, I think we will return to the splits and divisions of the Seventies and Eighties that led to 18 years of Tory rule."
The left says Members First is dominated by former trade union officials and backed by trade union funding, though the six places are meant for constituency activists.
The six candidates backed by Members First are Mr Cashman, Diana Jeuda, an NEC member for 11 years and former political officer for Usdaw, the shop workers' union; Margaret Payne, the first black councillor in Ealing; Terry Thomas, a former GMB official in Wales; Sylvia Tudhope, a member of the AEEU in Scotland; and Rita Stringfellow, a party member for 37 years.
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