Labour finds a Swindon spanner in the works

Paul Routledge on the 'line in the sand' being drawn for Tony Blair
Click to follow
The Independent Online
GATHER round to hear an everyday story of life in the new Labour Party.

Jim D'Avila is an engineering union shop steward who works in a car factory. He is regarded as "Old Labour". Michael Wills, a London-based television producer and personal friend of Tony Blair, is inevitably typecast as "New Labour". Both want to stand at the next general election for the highly-winnable constituency of Swindon North.

No prizes for guessing which candidate Mr Blair backs. Not many prizes for guessing that John Prescott, his deputy, might be inclined toward Mr D'Avila.

So far, Mr Blair and Mr Prescott have generally managed to keep such differences hidden. But an increasingly complex and bitter dispute between the two Swindon candidates has divided Labour's National Executive - and, for the first time since they took their present positions, Mr Blair and his deputy found themselves on opposite sides of a vote. A week tomorrow, it gets worse, with the engineering union, AEEU, taking the dispute to the High Court on Mr D'Avila's behalf.

The story goes back to last September when Mr Wills, an adviser to Gordon Brown, and a former member of Peter Mandelson's Shadow Communications Agency, won a "one member, one vote" selection ballot of the Swindon constituency members. He took 114 votes to his rival's 84.

The result was something of a surprise. Mr D'Avila, works convener at the Rover car plant in the town and chairman of the economic development committee on Thamesdown Borough Council, is a popular local man who came within 2,800 votes of winning Swindon at the 1992 election.

The poll outcome triggered an enormous row in the local party, with allegations of rule breaches and premature opening of postal votes. Mr D'Avila and his supporters demanded a fresh ballot.

Tom Sawyer, the Labour Party general secretary, was called in to investigate. He found "a clear body of evidence which points to the conclusion that there may have been tampering with the votes" and concluded that the result of the ballot was "unsafe to rely on". Moreover, a letter from constituency secretary Cindy Matthews to all party members making allegations about Mr D'Avila was "in very important respects, untrue" and "highly damaging" to him.

Mr D'Avila and his supporters still want a new ballot. The National Executive Committee, however, voted to give the choice of candidate to a small panel of NEC members, a procedure which is thought much more likely to secure the nomination of Mr Wills. The margin was 14, including Blair, to 10, including Prescott. As the left-wing Campaign newspaper noted: "For the first time since Tony Blair became leader, the bloc around him started to splinter."

That might have been the end of the story had Mr D'Avila not been an AEEU member. The union will ask Mr Justice Vinelott to overturn the party's ruling that the candidate must be picked by NEC members rather than by a fresh ballot.

None of the figures in this shabby little drama is happy with it being characterised as Old Labour versus New Labour. Mr D'Avila, aged 45, disputes the "Old Labour" tag, pointing out that although he remains a member of CND, he voted for Tony Blair in the leadership election, backed the reform of the nationalising Clause IV and supported the introduction of one member, one vote. "These are hardly the actions of someone who is 'Old Labour'," he insists. "It is total injustice to write it like that."

Mr Wills, aged 43, whose production credits for his independent TV company Juniper include The Goldring Audit, concurs. He feels that odious comparisons about "Old" and "New" Labour are invidious. Indeed, he thinks they are "bollocks". Nor does he like being ridiculed as "a metropolitan luvvie" who doesn't do a real job.

"I am disappointed that this matter is still dragging on," he said. "I was validly selected and should have been endorsed months ago. And every impartial observer who has looked at all the evidence agrees. The trouble is that most of the evidence on my side has been suppressed because of a well-funded campaign by a powerful interest group within the Labour Party."

This "interest group" is the engineering union, once the second largest affiliate to the Labour Party and still one of its biggest bank-rollers. Yet it has given steadfast support to New Labour, on one member, one vote, and virtually everything the leadership has asked for. The novel element in the equation is that the AEEU has a new president, who was elected just a few months ago with the support of the left. His arrival on the scene, unpredicted and not entirely welcome to the party leadership, has put a spanner in the works.

In a comment that will ring alarm bells in Mr Blair's office, Davey Hall says: "Through our association with the Labour Party, we have accepted the principle of 'fairness but no favours' being applied. We simply request a reciprocal attitude to prevail." In other words, the unions are back in the business of doing deals.

Mr Wills's supporters argue that the engineering union's propaganda machine has been peddling "neat, easy and wrong caricatures" which have less to do with him and Swindon North, and more to do with the personal ambition of one local man coinciding with his union's desire "to draw a national line in the sand for 'New Labour'".

Judged by that comment, if this is not a classic "Old" versus "New" Labour conflict, it is difficult to work out what one might look like.