Party right aims to seize chance for hard-left purge

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Political Correspondent

Fresh battlelines in the fight between Labour moderates and left-wingers will crystallise tomorrow when voting papers for key places on the party's ruling National Executive Committee are sent out.

Activists on the party right see this year's elections as a chance to expunge the committee's two hard-left constituency section members - Dennis Skinner, MP for Bolsover and Diane Abbott, MP for Hackney North & Stoke Newington.

A key factor in the fate of the left in the will be the attitude of the 120,000-plus new members who have joined the party since last year's contest.

Under new rules coming into effect this year, the seven- member section must also include three women for the first time, increasing the chances of Tony Blair loyalist Marjorie Mowlam, Labour's Northern Ireland spokeswomen, and Joyce Quin, a European affairs spokesman. A third woman, Dawn Primarolo, a former left-winger who now serves in the Shadow Treasury team, is also bidding to be elected to the committee for the first time.

Another contender, the soft-left Peter Hain, MP for Neath, will today re-open the debate about Labour's direction under Tony Blair by urging an end to Shadow Cabinet domination of the constituency section in an article in today's New Statesman and Society magazine.

Mr Hain tabled a motion at the 1988 conference to set up the National Policy Forum, which discusses policy drafted by frontbench teams before it is sent to the NEC and annual conference for approval. But critics of the NEC claim that it merely rubber stamps the Labour leadership's demands.

Mr Hain stressed yesterday that he was not joining the chorus of criticisms of Mr Blair over the past week. He said: "Tony Blair's first year as leader has been extraordinarily successful." But he added: "We now need to build upon this to ensure the involvement of all grassroots Labour activists in the campaign for victory."

Of the remaining sitting members, only Jack Straw, spokesman on home affairs, is viewed as remotely at risk of losing his place.

The Labour First network of several hundred constituency-based activists from the right and centre will be at the forefront of a campaign to rid the executive of its left-wingers - and to influence the outcome of two parallel elections for the National Constitutional Committee and the Conference Arrangements Committee. The former is the means by which the party disciplines members and local parties who fall out of line, while the latter plays a crucial role in the handling of debates and decision-making at the party conference.