Election '97: Left-wingers slip through Blair's net

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The Independent Online
At least seven left-wingers have slipped through New Labour's tight selection net, designed to weed out possible embarrassments to a Blair government, according to a survey by The Independent.

The newcomers will add to the core of left-wing MPs, including Ken Livingstone, who plan to set up a "1997 Committee" of backbenchers to form a bulwark to the leadership.

Interviewed in Red Pepper magazine in March, Mr Livingstone said the committee would be based on the Tory 1922 Committee. "The Millbank tendency will realise they need our support to get their programmes through and will find themselves under attack if they do reactionary things," he said.

Millbank strategists were careful to ensure that left-wing candidates remained invisible during the course of the campaign. Tony Blair's battle buses carefully avoided visiting their constituencies, preferring to be seen with candidates with solid Blairite credentials.

In safe Labour seats vacated by retiring MPs, two known left-wingers will take up their seats in the House of Commons - Hazel Blears, who stood in Salford East and Marsha Singh, the candidate for Bradford West.

In the 57 key marginals two left-wingers have been identified: Ann Cryer, widow of left-wing MP Bob Cryer, who contested Keighley (43rd on Labour's target list) and John McDonnell, a former deputy to Ken Livingstone at the GLC who stood in Hayes and Harlington (2nd on Labour's target list). The three others are Iain Coleman in Hammersmith and Fulham (77th on the target list), Paul Truswell in Pudsey (85th on the target list), and Harold Best in Leeds North West (91st on the target list).

Other candidates not seen as totally reliable by staff at Millbank Tower also failed to qualify for a visit from the leader. Some have histories the party would rather not highlight; others were avoided because the candidates beat the Millbank choice during the selection battle.

Janet Dean, the candidate for Burton in Staffordshire known to favour traditional Labour values, did not receive a visit from Mr Blair. Local journalists described Ms Dean, a former Mayor of East Staffordshire, as a John Prescott fan who "could not really be described as new Labour". Campaign managers decided instead on a visit to neighbouring Derbyshire South, where Mark Todd, a known Blairite and former leader of Cambridge Council is standing.

The key seat of Worcester suffered the same fate. Despite the high profile of "Worcester Woman", the stereotype of the kind of voter Labour had to win over, the leadership buses neatly missed the seat. Investigation into the background of the candidate Mike Watson suggested his only fault was to beat a Millbank candidate, Derek Scott, at selection. The local party rejected Mr Scott because he had stood as a candidate for the SDP in 1983.

Mr Blair did visit the neighbouring seat of Redditch, a mere 18 miles away, where Jacqui Smith, a well-known Blairite, is contesting the seat. But a visit to Warrington, planned for last weekend, where Mr Blair was scheduled to kick-off a rugby match between Warrington and Paris, was ditched.

Labour Party officers in Warrington said the plans had been called off because the press corps could not be accommodated at the stadium, although Mr Ron Close, the club's spokesman, said they had been ready to receive them.

The visit was cancelled last Friday after a story accused John Prescott of physical aggression when he was asked about the departure of Doug Hoyle, the MP for Warrington North who was recently induced to stand down to make way for an alternative candidate.

Yvette Cooper (28), an Independent journalist and partner of Ed Balls, Gordon Brown's right-hand man, was shortlisted for the seat but lost to Helen Jones, a solicitor from Widnes.

Labour Party sources in Warrington say that Ms Jones - described as a "traditional tax-and-spend egalitarian left-winger" - became a champion of a revolt against the imposition of candidates by Millbank. Members organised hard to get a local candidate selected.

Yvette Cooper was later selected to fight Pontefract and Castleford, a safe Labour seat with a majority of 23,495.

Batley and Spen was another seat the Blair buses decided not to call in at. The Labour candidate, Mike Wood, was selected in July 1995 over a favoured Millbank candidate, Catherine Ashton. Barry Salmon, editor of the Dewsbury Reporter, told The Independent a visit from the leadership could have made all the difference to the campaign. Mr Wood stood against Elizabeth Peacock, the maverick Tory who has a strong personal following and made substantial mileage by opposing the Government on key issues.

Terry Tordoff, Mr Wood's agent said Tony Blair was "quietly confident" that Labour would take the seat. Switching voters were being carefully targeted. "Millbank have quietly told us to get on with it," he said yesterday.

A Labour spokesman said: "All candidates supported the party's manifesto and were democratically selected under the one-member, one-vote system." Late cases were decided by a National Executive Committee by-election subcommittee which provided a shortlist of candidates.

The candidates who got away and may join Ken Livingstone's 1997 committee of backbenchers

Harold Best

Age: 57

Seat: Leeds North West (target seat number 91)

Opponent: Dr Keith Hampson

(Con maj, 7,671) An electrical technician by trade, he has a long history on the left of the Labour Party. A member of the Communist Party until 1956, he has been a trade unionist, lay preacher and ethical socialist. He was linked to the emergence of the New Left in the 1960s and was a friend of the left-wing historian EP Thompson.

Hazel Blears

Age: 41

Seat: Salford

Opponent: Elliot Bishop

(Lab maj, 12,987)

She is a solicitor and chair of the North West Regional Labour Party. Born in Salford, she has been active in the Labour Party for 20 years. In 1992 she contested the marginal seat of Bury South. Although she has undergone a transformation in image in recent years, she was an active left-winger during the late 1980s. She opposed the abolition of Clause IV.

Ann Cryer

Age: 58

Seat: Keighley, West Yorkshire

Opponent: Gary Waller (Con, maj 3,500)

She was a researcher and personal assistant to her husband Bob Cryer MP, who died in a car accident in April 1994. Local activists were eager for her to stand in his place rather than a candidate imposed from Millbank and she finally accepted after being convinced by Tony Benn. She describes herself as a "lifetime rebel".

John McDonnell

Age: 46

Seat: Hayes and Harlington

Opponent: Andrew Retter (Con, maj 44)

John McDonnell was deputy leader of the GLC under Ken Livingstone. He has called for the renationalisation of the railways, water, gas and electricity and has opposed the leadership on Clause IV, tax, education and local government. He was sued for libelling Tory MP Terry Dicks after the last election and had to pay pounds 78,000 costs and damages.

Marsha Singh

Age: 43

Seat: Bradford West

Opponent: Mohammed Riaz

(Con, maj 9,502)

Marsha Singh was educated at the University of Loughborough and works as a senior development manager in the National Health Service. A secular socialist, Mr Singh is opposed to privatisation and in favour of redistributive taxation. He also voted with his local constituency party against the abolition of Clause IV.

Paul Truswell

Age: 41

Seat: Pudsey

Opponent: Peter Bone

(Con maj, 8,972)

A former journalist and local government officer in Wakefield, he is chair of the Community Benefits and Rights Committee on Wakefield Council and a member of the civil rights group Liberty. His personal interests include health and social services, poverty and community development. He is widely respected as a principled left-winger and able politician.