Milburn uses election to galvanise Labour

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Labour MPs were put on a war footing yesterday for the next general election by Alan Milburn, the Prime Minister's election strategist, to quell unrest in the party's ranks.

Labour MPs were put on a war footing yesterday for the next general election by Alan Milburn, the Prime Minister's election strategist, to quell unrest in the party's ranks.

Mr Milburn will tell a special meeting of Labour's national executive committee (NEC) at the Amicus union training centre in Esher, Surrey, today, that he plans to have the Labour machine ready whenever Tony Blair calls the election.

Allies of Mr Milburn said reports that Mr Blair was preparing for a snap February election were "nonsense", and the party was gearing up for May. The Chief Whip, Hilary Armstrong, has ordered MPs to stop their absenteeism and the party's senior MPs have called on Mr Blair to produce a "heart-warming" Queen's Speech later this month for the last legislative session before the election.

"We are moving into the pre-election phase, getting the party machine in shape for the election," said a senior party official.

Speculation that Mr Blair could go for a February election would help to galvanise the party, he said. "People are putting two and two together and getting six, but it doesn't do us any harm to let the MPs think the election is just around the corner. Our job is to make sure the party is ready whenever Tony wants to press the election button."

Some members of the NEC will tell the leadership that they believe divisions in the party, including a row over the gambling Bill today, a refusal to support a ban on smacking in the Children Bill tomorrow and vacillation on the Bill to ban hunting, are self-inflicted.

But Labour's leaders remain confident it will win a substantial majority at the next election, even though its focus groups have shown that the Iraq war has wrecked trust in Mr Blair.

To counter this, Mr Milburn is planning to use Gordon Brown's economic record as the centrepiece for the election campaign for a third term for Mr Blair under the theme "Labour is working", coupled with "Don't let the Tories wreck it". This is a reversal of the Tories' 1979 campaign poster showing lines of unemployed, under the slogan, "Labour isn't working".

The Labour strategy chief has tried to repair relations with Mr Brown, who was removed from the role by Mr Blair, and has invited him to strategy meetings in Downing Street. Mr Milburn is also looking for an election war room and media centre outside Labour's headquarters overlooking St James's Park.

One of Labour's biggest concerns is the threat of a low turnout. Neil Kinnock, the EU commissioner, who is taking a life peerage on leaving Brussels, said he would launch a campaign for compulsory voting.

There was speculation that Mr Blair's early departure from the Rome summit on Friday was caused by a recurrence of his heart problems. Asked about Mr Blair's chances of winning a referendum on the European constitution, Bertie Ahern, the Irish Prime Minister, said: "To be honest he's tired." But he added: "Tony will, as soon as the [general] election is over, put his mind to it."

Few diplomats will have been surprised by Mr Blair's decision to leave Friday's EU constitution signing ceremony in Rome before the official lunch.

Even before his heart problems became public knowledge, he has been leaving summits as early as possible because Downing Street concluded long ago that they got little out of drawn-out EU press conferences. One cabinet colleague said: "It's rubbish to say he had to come back because he was too tired. I have spoken to him in recent days and he is in great shape, full of vigour."