The union man vs the city slicker

In Swindon, a vicious battle is being fought between Old and New Labour. Mary Braid reports
Click to follow
Even in the Machiavellian world of local Labour politics, the battle for the nomination for Swindon North between Jim D'Avila, a union- backed, home-grown activist, and Michael Wills, a London-based TV producer and friend and adviser to shadow chancellor Gordon Brown, has been a vicious, cut-throat, take-no-prisoners affair. The selection of the new constituency's prospective parliamentary candidate has now been stalled by court action following allegations of ballot rigging.

The battle began in earnest last September, when, following two years of bitter in-fighting in a factionalised local party, more than 100 Labour members trooped in to a local community centre to select their PPC.

Opponents of Jim D'Avila, 45, a union convenor at the local Rover car factory, say he should have been rattled by the uncharacteristically high turnout for the vote. D'Avila faced a strong challenge from Wills, a Cambridge- educated ex-diplomat tipped for a job in a future Labour cabinet, but he didn't appear unduly perturbed.

"He obviously thought he had it tied up," remembers one indignant party member. "He had the photographer from the local paper snapping him in victory pose outside the hall before the votes were counted."

The photocall proved premature. D'Avila, 45, who lost Swindon for Labour at the 1992 election, discovered he had polled 84 votes compared to Wills's 114. That he was "gobsmacked" is possibly the only matter on which he and his opponents agree. How galling for the local man to lose to a rank outsider, a "carpetbagger" "parachuted" into Swindon, in what should prove a safe Labour seat.

The men shook hands. But within days D'Avila, with the full support of the mighty Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union (AEEU), was complaining that his postal votes had been tampered with. The AEEU, one of the most powerful supporters of Labour's one member, one vote (OMOV) and other trade union reforms, threatened the party with court action unless the ballot was rerun. Wills and his supporters, meanwhile, demanded that D'Avila substantiate his claims and that the result stand unless a full Labour investigation discovered evidence of fraud.

In the five months since then there have been three Labour Party reports and a court ruling barring Labour from endorsing Wills. The local party has been torn apart. District and regional officials are angry that the Labour leadership has not moved more decisively to quash allegations which they insist are unfounded. One recently wrote to the party to complain that events in North Swindon proved political expediency came first when a disappointed candidate was backed by political, financial or union muscle.

Cracks have now appeared in Labour's National Executive Committee. In an unusually close vote last week members rejected re-running the Swindon ballot by 14 to 10. It created rare public division between Tony Blair and his deputy leader, John Prescott, who voted for a rerun and later abstained from the successful Blair-backed solution - to instruct a National Executive Committee panel to reinterview all the candidates and choose a winner. The solution pleases neither the D'Avila nor the Wills camp. D'Avila and his lawyer, Michael Short (brother of shadow cabinet member Claire Short), will return to court next week to challenge it.

Some NEC members argue that Swindon North is now the site of a class- war battle; it is here that the contest between Old Labour and New Labour is being played out. The Wills camp claims this is a simplistic, stereotypical argument, a smokescreen that obscures the real issues: local trade union manipulation to strengthen its power base following the collapse of the block vote and the introduction of OMOV, and the pathetic buckling of the Labour leadership under pressure from its union ally, the AEEU.

In Swindon North you can almost taste the bitterness between two entrenched camps. D'Avila's allegations centre on the opening, before the count, of envelopes containing postal votes. In a local coffee bar Mark Davis, a young solicitor and local party fundraiser, insists this happened to rectify an administrative mix-up in which some members did not received the right instructions on postal votes. He insists the envelopes - not the ballot forms - were opened with the agreement of all the candidates. But D'Avila says that while he knew about the measure, he did not give his permission.

D'Avila, who left school at 16 to become an apprentice toolmaker with Rover, insists he is the victim of a conspiracy devised by snooty, middle- class comrades. He believes only a third of his postal votes were counted. He believes the entire drama has its roots in a simple fact. "They did not want a dirty-fingernailed car worker representing Swindon in Parliament," he says.

And while he shrinks from describing Swindon as the battlefield in a Labour Party class war, he is less than reticent about his working-class credentials and says there has been class tension in the Swindon party for years.

D'Avila portrays himself as an unsophisticated local man hoodwinked by sharp-suited sharks. He says he was first persuaded to stand as a PPC for Swindon in the late 1980s by people who were fed up with solicitors, doctors and lecturers leading the way. "I was very naive," he says of the recent PPC selection. "I did not think there was a political agenda." He admits to a deep inner sense of social inadequacy. "I have always been conscious of not having a university education and I suppose I'm a little awestruck at times."

He reinforces the image of the down-to-earth local in for the long haul and the city slicker with with anecdotes. D'Avila remembers the day last year when Wills popped by Swindon to join a protest over the closure of a local hospital. "We had walked with the banner for seven miles," he claims. "Half a mile from the hospital up pulls this Mercedes with Michael Wills inside. He joined us for the last half mile."

D'Avila's opponents say this is a man who has reinvented himself. They point out that D'Avila has 20 years' local government experience under his belt, including a long spell as Labour's deputy leader on the town council, and has contested a general election before. He has been convenor at the 4,000-strong Rover plant since he was 26 and a leading light in one faction of the constituency party for years. "Jim is no horney-handed son of the soil," says Mark Davis. "He is a professional politician and has been for years."

In the past few months D'Avila has gathered 130 signatures from people who claim they voted for him to back his allegations. But Davis says at least a dozen were not eligible to vote or were not registered as having attended the meeting. In interviews with Labour Party officials, a few of those who said they had voted for Mr D'Avila recanted. ("When your powerful union convenor turns up on your doorstep to ask if you voted for him," says one local activist, "you are hardly going to tell him you voted for someone else.")

In the morass of claims and counter-claims what is clear is that both sides were sensitive to the power of postal votes to decide the contest. There were more than 60 postal votes in the North Swindon selection compared to a dozen in South Swindon. D'Avila admits some of his supporters were not certain to turn up when all the candidates appeared before the constituency party and that the postal vote is "likely to favour a prominent local candidate". Last summer D'Avila was censured by regional party officials for canvassing for postal votes. He argues that to ensure all members have a vote, whether they attend the meeting or not, is simply democratic. But Wills supporters disagree. "It is not in the spirit of OMOV for large numbers of members to vote by post without meeting or hearing the candidates," says one.

Back in London Wills seethes in silence. He is obeying party instructions not to speak publicly, but he is reportedly furious that he should be the victim of blatant class stereotyping. He may have made the right connections - he was introduced into influential Labour circles by Peter Mandelson, Labour's communication's guru - but he is proud of his roots: he is the son of an Austrian refugee and an Irish Catholic. And friends say he is angry with the Labour leadership for "sacrificing" basic justice to please the AEEU.

They argue the leadership was motivated primarily by a desire to preserve the supremacy of the NEC - legal interference in Labour's handling of Swindon North could have profound implications for the party's precarious position on all- women shortlists - and to avoid a politically and financially expensive fight with the AEEU.

"If there is any innocent abroad in this story it is Michael Wills," says one. "He went into politics rather wide-eyed and here he is involved in a bare knuckle fight with a politcally astute union opponent and no one is helping him."

Mark Davis says events in Swindon North show how easily OMOV can be hijacked. "OMOV is a delicate bloom. There were always going to be casualties. He adds that by failing to carry out a full investigation into the ballot rigging claims Labour has strengthed D'Avila's position in court.

"This isn't about class. It is about a man who lost and could not believe it. And about a union prepared to spend a fortune to take the Labour Party to court to exert its influence."

If the battle for the Labour heart of Swindon is about class, then John Sefton, a local pensioner and life-long trade unionist, would appear to be on the wrong side. Sefton voted for John Prescott in the leadership election. "I can't believe he's fallen for this," he says of Prescott's recent NEC vote.

On a drive round Swindon North, he says that the reason why D'Avila could never win the seat is there for all to see. He claims that less than a sixth of the 60,000 strong North Swindon population now live in council houses: if Labour is to win it is the occupants of Swindon's smart new homes who must be persuaded to vote for it. "They keep saying this is an easy seat for Labour but it won't be," he argues. "Jim recorded the smallest swing for Labour in the South at the last election.

"In the 1960s or 1970s in the days of the big engineering employers like Plessey and Great Western Railways Jim would have won, but Swindon has changed." Swindon's engineering base is still there in companies like Toyota and Rover, but it is the insurance companies and hi-tech business that have swelled the population in recent years. For such people, Wills has "more general appeal".

"When he spoke at my branch meeting," says Sefton, "he took it by storm and it was his performance at the constituency meeting which won him the ballot."

Whatever the outcome, events in Swindon North knock the gloss off the image of New Labour Party unity. The resurfacing of old divisions is ammunition for Labour opponents. The damage done in the past five months may eventually cost Labour the seat. And who knows what damage that may do to its prospects elsewhere.