Smith under attack for remote style: Labour MPs' concern over leader exposed as voting changes pose deselection threat

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The Independent Online
JOHN SMITH has been warned by more than 80 Labour MPs that his plans to expand party membership and grass-roots democracy could be abused - with constituency 'godfathers' buying safe Commons seats for as little as pounds 1,000 a time.

The proposal has lifted the lid on a more general Parliamentary Labour Party concern about the remote style of Mr Smith's leadership. After 14 years in opposition, the party's natural frustration is increasingly being aggravated by a feeling of impotence in the face of significant government blunders.

There is a pervasive backbench feeling that the party lacks direction; whether from those who wanted the firm smack of leadership on electoral change, or from those who felt cheated by ministers who were able to point out that Labour, as well as the Tories, had decided to review the need for universal welfare benefits. Such unease has been compounded by this week's reshuffle, with some ambitious right-wing Labour MPs pointing out that party rules stopped Mr Smith axeing the 'dead wood' from his Shadow Cabinet.

Against that background, Mr Smith's unilateral decision to pave the way for widespread threats of deselection against his own MPs has provided an easy target for attack. 'Labour MPs are up the wall, over the ceiling, and up the chimney about this,' a frontbencher said yesterday. 'The discontent is festering.'

The MPs' concern for their own future has been prompted by a recent statement that Mr Smith wanted to build on plans for one member, one vote democracy by lifting the bar on new party members voting in the selection of candidates within 12 months of recruitment.

'It would not in my opinion be right to encourage a large number of new members, who because of this rule, would not be able to participate in selections (of parliamentary candidates) to be held in 1994,' the Labour leader said.

There was no prior consultation with the parliamentary party on his proposal to drop the 12-month rule. Some MPs were immediately struck by the fact that if new members could vote as soon as they signed up on a reduced-rate subscription, it would be possible to swamp small local parties with 'voting armies' who could back sponsoring paymasters as candidates.

A protest letter signed by an estimated 85 MPs and delivered to Mr Smith's office this week by Terry Rooney, Labour MP for Bradford North, was said yesterday to have put a price of pounds 300 on a Labour council seat, pounds 1,000 on a Commons seat, and pounds 2,500 on a seat in the European Parliament.

One of the MPs who signed the letter said yesterday that in his safe Labour constituency it would be possible, with just 100 new members, to kick him out and replace him.

Even on the basis of the current reduced-rate subscription fee of pounds 5 for pensioners, students and the unwaged, the MP said it would be easy to oust him if the 12-month voting bar was dropped - the only existing obstacle to concerted 'swamping' exercises. As an MP is paid more than pounds 30,000, the pounds 500 needed to finance their subscriptions would be a good 'investment'.

While many MPs would not comment publicly on the proposal, for fear of drawing attention to their own vulnerability, Max Madden, Labour MP for Bradford West and the party's former Director of Communications, warned that the rule change could be politically devastating and financially catastrophic, opening the way for deselection of sitting MPs to be challenged in the courts.

Mr Madden, who is standing down at the next election, expressed concern that there was no requirement for new party members to be on the electoral register. 'This rule- change proposal reflects the fact that the leadership is remote and unaware of the problems it will create on the ground.

'They are totally in the dark as to what the dangers are. What we should be doing is creating procedures for welcoming genuine new members, with safeguards to prevent the creation of voting armies for those ambitious to become councillors, MPs or Members of the European Parliament.'

The big guns of the trade union block vote are being wheeled out against the leadership proposals for one member, one vote (OMOV). A second large union, the Post Office workers', yesterday rejected Mr Smith's proposals. The decision follows rejection of Mr Smith's strategy by MSF, the biggest white-collar union in the private sector, and a strident anti-OMOV speech on Thursday by John Edmonds, leader of the GMB general union, the party's second biggest affiliate.