Labour MPs seek 'independence'

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A rising number of backbench Labour MPs are backing a plan to issue a "declaration of independence" from the party leadership, saying they will retain the right to organise and speak for themselves if Tony Blair forms the next government.

Several MPs intend to respond to Mr Blair's crackdown on internal dissidents by insisting on their right to "democratic debate". Donald Dewar, Labour chief whip, is sending warning letters to three MPs after their allegations last week that shadow Cabinet elections were "nobbled". Mr Dewar has threatened to withdraw the whip from persistent rebels - suspending their membership of the parliamentary party.

Paul Flynn, MP for Newport West, fought back at the weekend by writing to fellow MPs inviting them to set up a "1996 Committee" of Labour back- benchers modelled on the Conservative 1922 Committee. This would provide a direct channel for the views of backbenchers to a Labour government.

Mr Flynn told the Independent: "We need a 1922 Committee where the leader comes only by invitation." He was reacting to the announcement that the make-up of the "liaison committee", which would act as a bridge between a Labour government and backbenchers, was being reviewed. Unlike the Tory 1922 Executive Committee, it would include the leader, deputy leader, chief whip and ministers as well as six elected backbench representatives.

The 1922 was formed in the year Tory backbenchers forced the break-up of Lloyd George's wartime coalition government and ousted Austen Chamberlain as Tory leader.

Mr Flynn warned that unless backbenchers were allowed their own voice, "there will be an almighty split". Although he is regarded as a maverick, his views are supported by many mainstream MPs in private.

After the shadow Cabinet election results were announced last Wednesday, Mr Blair's spokesman said a long-running review of the rules of the Parliamentary Labour Party would lead to a new "code of conduct" for Labour MPs and new arrangements for "consultation" in government.

Defence rebellion, page 2