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Labour MPs revolt against the party line

LABOUR fear and loathing of the Government machine broke out yesterday after the whips went too far in the drive to control MPs.

Senior backbenchers are enraged by a plan to take central control of candidate selection for the next election, threatening to oust non-conformists from their Commons seats.

The backlash has even spread to the ranks of the Cabinet, with Deputy Prime minister John Prescott and Secretary of State for Education and Employment David Blunkett reportedly opposing the whips' plans to dictate the names of the three MPs who are to be elected to the party's ruling national executive committee (NEC).

Unhappy and fearful Labour MPs - who all demanded anonymity before speaking to The Independent - yesterday compared the whips to the East German secret police, the Stasi.

In Prime Minister's Commons question time on Wednesday, Andrew Mackinlay, Labour MP for Thurrock, delighted all sides of the House with a brave question in which he urged Tony Blair to discourage fawning and obsequious questions, and encourage scrutiny and accountability of his executive by MPs.

The Prime Minister's answer was ambiguous. But there has been no ambiguity in the whips' proposals.

There was outrage at a private meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) on Wednesday, when MPs debated a paper on "Parliamentary Selection Consultation". The document said: "The Chief Whip will present a report to the NEC detailing unauthorised absences, principled abstentions and votes against the whip of all members of the PLP and may recommend to the NEC that they interview MPs with exceptionally poor records. This information will be in the public domain ... "

The plan even included a suggestion that MPs in safe Labour seats might be challenged by "chicken run" Commons colleagues who could lose their more marginal constituencies at the next election.

One senior MP said yesterday: "You see eyes of the young ones who got in by not many votes - their eyes lit up at the prospect of challenging all the old farts, and beating them."

Another long-standing MP said: "They are trying to get a permanent change in the kind of person we select as MPs. They want people who shout, 'What's the line? What's the line?' all the time."

At Wednesday's PLP meeting, David Gardner, the party's assistant general secretary, said there was no central plan to fill the Labour benches with a bunch of Blairite clones. But few older MPs are convinced.

The revolt against plans to control membership of the NEC came on two fronts yesterday: with strong signals of cabinet-level backing for Dennis Skinner to remain a parliamentary member of the NEC; and with left-wingers leading the running in constituency party nominations for the rank-and- file section.

Mr Prescott and Mr Blunkett were said to have been upset by the tactics of the Government whips' office to rig the election on the NEC for MPs and MEPs by issuing its own preferred list of three candidates, including Clive Soley, chairman of the PLP.

Mr Skinner, MP for Bolsover, had gained more than 50 nominations yesterday within 24 hours of deciding to stand again for the NEC. Pete Willsman, a well-known figure on the left of the party, had the backing of 27 constituencies, and Liz Davies, had 25. Michael Cashman, received 21 nominations.

Last night some party sources said leadership interference had backfired. "The leadership has been cack-handed over this.," one senior party figure said. "If they had left it to the grass roots to decide, their candidates would have come through."