Hilary Benn makes first move in bid for deputy leadership

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Hilary Benn, the International Development Secretary, has joined the contest to succeed John Prescott as Deputy Leader of the Labour Party who retires next year. Mr Benn's supporters, including his parliamentary aide Ashok Kumar, have begun approaching MPs to secure the 44 nominations he will need to get his name on to the ballot paper.

Two MPs have confirmed privately to The Independent that they were approached by Mr Kumar. One said that Mr Benn's chances of finding the necessary signatures were "very good".

Mr Kumar refused to be drawn on his role in the Benn campaign. He said: "I am not at liberty to speak about that. You will have to ask Hilary himself."

Confirmation that Mr Benn would be aiming for the job was posted in the week on the web log run by the Labour MP Tom Watson, who resigned from the Government last month after signing a letter calling on Tony Blair to quit so that the leadership campaign could begin.

Mr Watson's blog said: "A very reliable source has just told me that Hilary Benn is definitely standing for deputy leader. A less reliable source tells me that a former cabinet minister will be in charge of his bid and that a professional sounding campaign team has already been put in place."

The former Cabinet minister rumoured to be backing Mr Benn is Ian McCartney, who was chairman of the Labour Party in the two years running up to the last general election.

Mr McCartney is a close friend of Mr Prescott and has strong links with trade union leaders.

Next year's leadership and deputy leadership elections will be conducted under a complex one-member, one-vote system in which the union bosses no longer wield block votes but can still influence the votes of union members through regional networks.

The first ever deputy leadership contest held under rules that allowed party and union members to vote, as well as Labour MPs, was triggered in 1981 when Hilary Benn's father, Tony, decided to challenge Denis Healey, in a bitter contest that Healey won by a wafer-thin majority.

The heads of most of the biggest unions affiliated to the Labour Party have shown a preference for backing Jon Cruddas, the former Downing Street political adviser who has publicly declared that he will run. Dave Prentis, the leader of the biggest union, Unison, is expected to back the Education Secretary, Alan Johnson.

Other contenders for the deputy's job include the Constitutional Affairs minister, Harriet Harman, and the Northern Ireland Secretary, Peter Hain.

The contest to succeed Tony Blair as leader is likely to be far less closely fought, since no credible candidate has yet emerged to challenge the Chancellor Gordon Brown. The left-wing backbench MP John McDonnell has said that he will run, if he can secure the necessary nominations. The Home Secretary, John Reid, has not ruled himself out, but he appears not to have the necessary support.