With the leadership retreating from threats to discipline left-wing rebels under a Labour government, and a study suggesting that as prime minister Tony Blair might have to cope with up to 30 hard-core dissidents in the Commons, tensions are being aggravated by this year's ballot for the executive.
The contest is exposing the raw policy conflict between old and New Labour, with demands for the renationalisation of water, gas, and electricity, pounds 3bn extra in tax to be taken from those earning more than pounds 50,000 and the repeal of Tory union laws.
Left-wing calls for socialist action are included in the manifestos of six of the 20 candidates for the seven-strong constituency Labour party section of the executive, a political beauty contest won last year by Robin Cook, shadow foreign secretary.
Ballot papers provide a unique platform for the left, with each candidate allowed up to 300 words of unreconstructed, Old Labour socialism. A Labour leadership spokesman said: "Every time the New Labour case has been put to a ballot of the party membership, we have won overwhelmingly."
But two socialist candidates were elected to the constituency section of the NEC last year - Dennis Skinner and Diane Abbot. This year they stand every chance of re-election, along with Mr Cook, Gordon Brown, the shadow chancellor, David Blunkett, education spokesman, Harriet Harman, social security spokeswoman, and Mo Mowlam, Northern Ireland spokeswoman.
While the mainstream candidates' manifestos generally tread a careful, New Labour line, the appeal for votes coaxes Mr Brown into a call for "unifying socialist values"; Mr Cook says he will urge "a Labour government to help most those whom the Tories have hurt worst"; and Mr Blunkett promises to "eliminate the pounds 3bn backlog of repairs and maintenance in our schools". However, free of the restraint of frontbench responsibility, Mr Skinner, Ms Abbot and their colleagues let loose with the untrammelled socialism that will provide ammunition for more Tory "New Labour, New Danger" advertisements.
Mr Skinner says: "We need to campaign for full-employment policies and public ownership; maintain and improve universal welfare benefits and pensions; repeal VAT on domestic fuel; repeal trade-union laws; impose a minimum wage; phase out private beds in the NHS and kick out the Tory spivs who run the trusts..."
Ms Abbot says: "I am opposed to the [shadow chancellor's] proposal to cut child benefit for children once 16, and we should put up the state pension by restoring the link with earnings."
It was reported yesterday that a study at Hull University had found Mr Blair might have more hard-core rebels in government than John Major. Mr Skinner and Ms Abbot were among those identified.
A leadership source yesterday indicated that earlier threats to punish rebels had been softened. It is known that deputy leader John Prescott and Mr Cook were unhappy about the threat to withdraw the Labour whip from rebels and its timing, in the aftermath of last month's shadow cabinet elections.Reuse content