MPs favour scrapping elections or cutting number of posts: Shadow Cabinet poll could be reformed

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TONY BLAIR is under pressure to make today's Shadow Cabinet elections the last, or at least to reduce the numbers elected from the present 18 back to 12.

The argument is being made by senior Shadow Cabinet members, some of the new intake of MPs repelled by the horse-trading in votes under way yesterday and by middle-rank Labour MPs who believe the party should prepare for government.

Ending or scaling down the elections, leaving the Labour leader either more or total discretion to decide who takes the key front- bench posts, is seen by its advocates as the next stage in Labour's modernisation. It would mean overturning one more part of the Bennite revolution.

It would give Mr Blair the greatest flexibility since Attlee in choosing his Cabinet should he win the election, as existing parliamentary party rules say the first Cabinet of a Labour government should be drawn from the Shadow Cabinet.

'There's definitely a mood for these elections to be the last,' one senior Shadow Cabinet member said yesterday. The existing annual elections were 'a waste of space and a big diversion'.

A former Labour frontbencher from the party's left said a case remained for electing a Shadow Cabinet of a dozen, including four women, leaving the leader to appoint the best available talent for the remaining eight or ten posts, and free to appoint his own chief whip from among the Shadow Cabinet.

'The elections at present are not about talent. They are about popularity, power blocks and patronage, and too many time- servers get elected.'

One of Labour's newer MPs said: 'There's a strong feeling among the '92 intake that the time has come for honest voting.'

The move for reform comes as Labour MPs were yesterday faced with a near record 52 candidates for the 18 places available, with 17 women - virtually half of Labour's women MPs - standing.

One senior MP complained that the combined effect of Labour's national executive and Shadow Cabinet elections 'is to fill all our pigeon-holes with piles of bumpf across the summer and autumn as candidates issue background papers about this and policy documents about that to ensure they get noticed and elected'.

Many MPs see Labour's Shadow Cabinet divided into a clear first and second division, but with no certainty that the less accomplished performers will be relegated because of a nightmarish voting system, the women's quota vote, and left-right, North-South, and other splits.

Yesterday, established Shadow Cabinet members and aspirants were all highly visible in the lobbies drumming up final votes. One northern MP complained: 'If they'd canvassed this hard at the '92 election we might have been in Government now.'

MPs expect Mr Blair to place his own clear stamp on the new Shadow Cabinet, paying little attention to precise rankings in the election in awarding key posts.