Labour left seeks 1922-style group

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The bickering inside the Labour Party has led to demands by some left- wing MPs for a Tory 1922-style committee to represent backbench opinion.

The growing dissatisfaction with the way the Parliamentary Labour Party is being run was intensified last week by the manouevres to scrap the Shadow Cabinet elections before the general election.

Some Labour backbenchers believe that a 1922-style body would allow them more freedom to express unrest. They want a new body to represent their views to the leadership, rather than allow the leadership to manipulate them. Their opportunity to demand the change came last week after a consultation letter was sent to MPs by Tom Sawyer, Labour's general secretary, announcing that four task forces were being set up to reform party machinery in preparation for government.

Mr Sawyer said the task forces would examine: the national executive committee; the links between the leadership and the party in power; widening democracy to involve all members in consideration of policy; and building a mass membership.

In his letter, Mr Sawyer said: "The NEC believes that this work is of the utmost importance in our preparation for government and believes that we need to use all the experience that is available to use, including learning from our own past."

Behind the consultation is a far-reaching proposal to rob the NEC of much of its policy- making powers, and return it to its original role as a management body, dealing in party administration.

Tony Blair, the Labour leader, has almost absolute control of the NEC but, in government, the leadership is acutely aware that it could become a focus for policy battles.Mr Blair is determined that a modern Labour government should keep those battles inside Cabinet, once the policy has been agreed through the wider membership.

The first step towards reducing the power of the NEC over the framing of the manifesto is the consultation exercise seeking the approval of the whole party for its policy platform. The "Road to the Manifesto" exercise will be voted on at the October party conference. The Labour leadership is determined to defend it on the grounds that it is widening democracy.

However, some on the left believe the reforms being raised by Mr Sawyer may be used further to isolate the left wing. That is why they are now pushing for a more effective backbench body. Unlike the present PLP, it would not include Cabinet ministers.

Conservative MPs may find it amusing to see Labour trying to ape their backbench "trade union". Many complained that their views were being manipulated last year after Sir Marcus Fox, the 1922 Committee chairman, said its executive unanimously supported John Major in the leadership election. A small number of the executive supported John Redwood.

The 1922 Committee takes its name from the meeting at the Carlton Club on 19 October 1922, when Conservative MPs decided to fight the following election as a separate party rather than in alliance with the National Liberals.