Blair allies lose ground to the 'Brown babes'

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Indy Politics

Candidates on all-women shortlists are battling for some of Labour's safest seats in draughty halls up and down the country.

There is, however, one phrase notably absent from their lips: no one, it seems, wants to be a "Blair babe" any more. From London to Lancashire, candidates with links to the Prime Minister are losing ground to those with local roots or with connections to Gordon Brown.

There was a time when being a former neighbour of Tony Blair would have been seen as an advantage in winning the battle to represent Islington South, the spiritual birthplace of New Labour.

But Emily Thornberry, a human rights lawyer, is playing down the fact that she moved into the same Islington street as the Blairs on the same day.

"I saw him from time to time with his kids in the local playground but I wouldn't say we were friends," says the 43-year-old, who is instead stressing her council estate background and her local knowledge. She is confident of success, despite being up against Faz Hakim, a former member of Mr Blair's political office in Downing Street.

It is a pattern repeated in Burnley, a seat once linked with the Government's former director of communications, Alastair Campbell, a passionate fan of the town's football team.

Kitty Usher, 32, the Oxford-educated adviser to Patricia Hewitt, is struggling to overcome a local union official for the right to represent a seat with a Labour majority of 10,498.

Debbie Brannan, a regional officer of the trade union Amicus, believes Ms Usher's links to a Blairite Cabinet minister must count against her, saying: "I think it is going to be more important to have good local connections."

By contrast, Natascha Engel, an aide to the Treasury minister John Healey, has easily overcome local opposition to be selected for Derbyshire North East. However, she denies that having impeccable Brownite connections helped her to the job.

"I was expecting that to come up, but in fact people were much more interested in local issues," she said, adding that the term "Blair babe" was outdated and insulting. "It is sexist, patronising nonsense."

But it is likely that Ms Engel will have to endure a different sexist and patronising label as one of a new generation of "Brown babes". For another ally of the Chancellor is among the front-runners to take over from Alice Mahon as MP for Halifax.

Jo Coles, an aide to the junior minister Yvette Cooper, has thrown her hat into the ring in the contest. She too is playing down her relations with leading Brown allies, highlighting instead her family background in Halifax.

Nevertheless, seasoned observers are beginning to notice a distinct trend in the selections. They point to the furore created in the Labour heartlands of Wales, where the selection of an ally of Mr Blair, Maggie Jones, has split the local party.

Anger over the imposition of an all-women list and the selection of Ms Jones, a former chairman of the Labour Party, has even provoked a threat from the local member of the Welsh Assembly to stand as an independent against her.

"All-women shortlists used to be a good way of parachuting in Blair loyalists," said a senior party figure. "These days it seems it only works if you are close to the Brown camp."

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