Labour MP attacks Blair for centralisation of party power

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The Independent Online

Political Correspondent

A Labour backbencher attacks Tony Blair today for centralising power in the leader's office, adding to evidence of a backlash in the party against Mr Blair's leadership style prompted by the hard-fought Littleborough and Saddleworth by-election campaign and the crack down on Walsall Labour Party.

"Power is increasingly centralised around the leader's office, with immense pressure on everyone else to fall into line in the interests of unity/not jeopardising our electoral chances," writes Richard Burden, MP for Birmingham Northfield, in New Statesman & Society.

"I am worried by the prospect of a party continually concerned to avoid the spread of negative images of itself, desperate to be elected as representative of mainstream opinion, and yet with its own inner sanctum holding a virtual monopoly on defining what such mainstream opinion consists of. I thought that kind of approach to political leadership went out of fashion when the Berlin Wall came down."

Mr Burden, who voted for Tony Blair in last year's leadership election, appears to throw away his prospects of promotion in an article in which he says he was "ashamed" by the Labour campaign in last month's by-election.

The campaign, run by Mr Blair's ally Peter Mandelson, MP for Hartlepool, accused Chris Davies, the Liberal Democrat victor, of being "high on taxes and soft on drugs".

Mr Burden's criticism was echoed yesterday by left-wing Labour councillors in Walsall, where the party organisation was suspended on Monday after complaints of intimidation and abuse.

Brian Powell, chairman of the suspended district party, has complained that "basic principles of natural justice have been confounded" by this "peremptory decision". In a letter to the Independent, he says: "I have been inundated with calls from members of the borough party expressing anger at what has happened."

John Rothery, Walsall deputy leader, attacked Conservative-inspired "hysteria" over his council's policies and accused Labour headquarters of caving in to Tory propaganda.

Frank Dobson, Labour environment spokesman, announced the suspension as Brian Mawhinney, the Tory party chairman, visited the West Midlands town to denounce its new Labour council as "loony left".

But it emerged yesterday that the Labour National Executive at its meeting two weeks ago approved a report on Walsall council which detailed seven guidelines laid down for councillors by Labour headquarters. Labour sources said these guidelines were ignored by the Walsall group, making Monday's suspension inevitable.

News Analysis, page 17

Letters, page 18