ELECTION '97 : Labour lines up new candidates for safe seats

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Labour selected three candidates last night for safe seats where the sitting MPs decided suddenly to retire just after the election was called.

In a fourth constituency, the party leadership could be courting controversy if Jack Dromey, one of Tony Blair's closest ally in the unions, is "parachuted" into one of the safest seats in the country. Mr Dromey, the husband of Harriet Harman, Labour's social security spokeswoman, was defeated two years ago in the battle for the leadership of the Transport and General Workers' Union by Bill Morris.

Labour's National Executive Committee is expected today to place Mr Dromey on a shortlist for the Castleford and Pontefract constituency. The seat - where Labour won a 23,000 majority in the last election - has become vacant with the retirement of Sir Geoffrey Lofthouse, second deputy speaker in the House of Commons.

The party has added two women to its list of candidates. Rosemary McKenna, a former president of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and a leading member of the Blairite group The Network, will stand in Cumbernauld and Kilsyth, where Norman Hogg is to retire.

Helen Jones, a solicitor from Widnes and a member of the party's North- West executive, will stand in Warrington North, replacing Doug Hoyle, chair of the Parliamentary Labour Party. In St Helens North, the candidate will be David Watts, the local council leader and agent to the retiring MP John Evans.

All three won in one-member-one-vote ballots by an overwhelming majority. All are also local to the areas. But there had been surprise and some anger in two of the seats after locally favoured applicants were excluded from the shortlists by the by-election panel of the party's National Executive Committee. In Warrington, Chris Matteson, researcher to Doug Hoyle for the past six years, was excluded and in Cumbernauld Ian Smart, the Scottish party's solicitor, was also left out.

The selection process was curtailed because of the proximity of the election, with applicants sending their curricula vitae to the party's headquarters for shortlisting. The final selections were made in votes at meetings in the three constituencies last night.