Blair accused of plot to impose candidates

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Tony Blair, the Labour leader, was accused yesterday of betraying his commitment to "one member, one vote" democracy in the party by planning to impose his favoured candidates in a number of safe seats.

Activists in the 14 safe Labour seats which have not yet chosen candidates fear that the decision by the National Executive Committee (NEC) yesterday to impose a candidate in the new safe seat of Swindon North heralds a series of central decisions.

The NEC rejected demands to re-run the ballot, despite court action by Jim D'Avila, an engineering union convenor who alleged irregularities, and chose Michael Wills, an adviser to Gordon Brown, the shadow Chancellor, who won the initial ballot last September.

Activists fear that Mr Blair is deliberately delaying selections in safe Labour seats in order to invoke powers to suspend membership ballots and appoint candidates on the grounds that a general election is imminent.

David Hill, the party's chief spokesman, said that such fears were unjustified, and that the NEC had declared yesterday that it should "err on the side of balloting local members wherever possible". It had decided that the "internal bitterness and politics" of the Swindon North party made a fair re-run ballot impossible.

He pointed out that the NEC had taken a different stance yesterday in the case of Glasgow Govan, by ordering a fresh ballot for next month.

Mike Watson, MP for Glasgow Central, won the ballot by just one vote from Mohammed Sarwar, who hopes to become Britain's first Asian Muslim MP. But party bosses decided not to endorse Mr Watson after a report by the electoral specialists Unity Balloting Services found that some people who voted were ineligible.

Mr Blair is believed to be keen to see as MPs in the next Parliament: Alan Howarth, who defected from the Tories last year; Derek Scott, the Labour leader's economic adviser who failed to be selected for Worcester; and Patricia Hewitt, Neil Kinnock's former press secretary, who played a central policy role in Labour's last election campaign.

The NEC has the power to intervene in the selection of candidates if it decides that the party needs to be ready for a general election. Mr Hill said that, in the past, the NEC had usually presented its own shortlist to the local party for balloting - the same procedure as for by-elections. However, he conceded that the NEC had the power, as in Swindon North, to set up a sub-committee simply to appoint a candidate.