Labour Conference: Beckett appointed to stop poll rout

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The Independent Online
MARGARET BECKETT was appointed Labour's campaigns co-ordinator yesterday in a shake-up of the party machine intended to head off disastrous results in a series of difficult elections next spring.

John Prescott, Deputy Prime Minister, warned the party conference that the Government could suffer the consequences of a bout of mid-term blues in the elections to local authorities, the Scottish and Welsh assemblies and the European Parliament.

Mrs Beckett's appointment reflects the deep concern in the Labour leadership that apathetic supporters in its traditional heartlands will not bother to vote now that the party is in government.

An internal Labour report, leaked to The Independent this week, warned that the party was "on a hiding to nothing" in the local elections and could lose 2,000 of the 6,000 seats it has to defend.

Questioned about the report yesterday, Mrs Beckett declined to predict the scale of Labour's losses, but admitted the party faced "an uphill task" because the seats falling vacant were last fought when the Tories were at their nadir and the Liberal Democrats were doing badly. She was "very pleased but slightly apprehensive" about her new role.

Mrs Beckett, leader of the Commons, will form a double act with Jack Cunningham, the Cabinet's "enforcer", to ensure government and party campaigns knit together in the busy election period next spring. One of her jobs will be to persuade hard-pressed ministers to devote time to party work.

Tony Blair decided to appoint a campaign co-ordinator partly because Mr Prescott, who did the job unofficially as deputy Labour leader, had his hands full running the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions.

Mrs Beckett may not be in the campaigning post for long; Mr Blair may give it to Mo Mowlam, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, next year.

Although he moved Mrs Beckett against her will from the Department of Trade and Industry in the July cabinet reshuffle, Mr Blair regards her as a safe pair of hands and she performed well in a front-line role during last year's general election campaign.

In his closing speech to the Blackpool conference, Mr Prescott said that in the "crucial period" ahead, every party member had to be an ambassador for Labour. "We're not very good at trumpeting our achievements but all too quick to point out our shortcomings," he said.

Mr Prescott took a sideswipe at the Liberal Democrats, saying that in one part of the country they "talk more Tory than Tories; in another more Labour than Labour." He said Labour would expose their game - even if that upset Paddy Ashdown.

But Mr Blair, in a series of television interviews, took a more conciliatory line towards the Lib Dem leader, amid Labour fears that he could be toppled because of the Prime Minister's reluctance to back proportional representation.

While promising he would not try to "bounce" Labour into supporting PR, Mr Blair called for close co-operation with the Lib Dems. "We're all modern social democrats; where we do agree, we should be working together," he said. "Let's not be tribal about all this."