New Labour forced into old bottles

Fran Abrams reveals how the long arm of Walworth Road is planting the seeds of a new Blairite parliament
Click to follow
On a spring afternoon two weeks ago in Newport East, a Welsh Labour constituency dominated by the Llanwern steelworks, party activists gathered for the final selection of the candidate who would almost certainly become their next MP.

The late resignation of Roy Hughes, the member for the past 14 years, had thrown up a strong field for the seat. There was intense interest in the outcome, not least because one of the contenders was Alan Howarth, the former Conservative minister who defected to Labour.

As the votes were being counted, a few eyebrows lifted. Ron Davies, shadow Cabinet member for Wales, had arrived for the count - a highly unusual visit from someone not closely connected with the constituency party.

But the surprise guest was all but forgotten when the results were announced. Mr Howarth, who had already been rejected by two constituencies and who had widely been expected to suffer the same fate here, had swept the board with 141 votes - a clear majority. Reg Kelly, a popular local union official, had received just 58 votes while Labour's higher education spokesman, Bryan Davies, came in third with 49.

Ron Davies was delighted. The MP for Stratford-upon-Avon had won the affection and respect of the local party, he told the waiting media. "There never was any question of anyone being parachuted in."

Perhaps not. Mr Howarth had worked hard for the selection over the preceding weeks. The party's Welsh spokesman, who was rumoured to be close to the local council leader, Harry Jones, could not single-handedly have won him the seat by his influence.

But the selection remains a puzzle: why would a steel town in Wales take to its heart a man so closely connected with Middle England, a man whose former party it blames for the deindustrialisation from which it has suffered?

The answer holds a clue to the workings of Tony Blair's organisation. New Labour gets things done. At least four more such selections are expected before the election. All are for plum, safe Labour seats, a career in politics for life.

Three run-offs are already under way, and at least one more MP - Geoffrey Lofthouse, at Pontefract - is strongly rumoured to be about to step down. And if every one of the chosen candidates is not Blairite to the core, questions will be asked.

Admiration must surely be due to the apparatchiks at Labour's campaign headquarters for their skill in engineering these last-minute retirements, if, as has frequently been suggested, it is they who are responsible.

There was surprise, if not shock, when the veteran MPs Doug Hoyle, Norman Hogg and John Evans all announced their retirement last Saturday. Could inducements have been offered? An MP who has served an area for many years is likely to feel some loyalty to the activists who have supported him. He has to have a very good reason to go six weeks before an election. There have been tales of empty seats in the House of Lords waiting for the departing members.

These men must have had some explaining to do in their constituencies - Warrington North, Cumbernauld and Kilsyth and Saint Helens North, respectively - which all now have shortlists imposed on them.

Such sudden departures have always occurred, but not on such a scale. So what has changed?

"What's different this time is that they are quite clear about getting a certain type of person in," said Mark Seddon, editor of Tribune, which has been predicting these events for a year.

"In a lot of those constituencies, people will be very disappointed," he said. The process by which the party's influence is exerted is hard to see. There is no one "witch-finder general" who will jet in from London to make sure the right person gets selected. But make no mistake, Mr Blair's office will be keeping an eye on proceedings.

Anyone who failed to have their curriculum vitae at party headquarters within three days of last weekend's resignations by Doug Hoyle in Warrington, Norman Hogg in Cumbernauld and John Evans in Saint Helens stood no chance.

The party's by-election panel, chaired by Hilary Armstrong - a close associate of Mr Blair's - met on Wednesday this week to draw up the shortlists of hopefuls.

David Gardner, the party's head of organisation, had already scanned the applications and drawn up recommendations. Tom Sawyer, the party's general secretary, and Ian McCartney, the party's employment spokesman, were also there.

Shock ran through two of the constituencies as news of their decisions spread. In both Warrington, and in Cumbernauld and Kilsyth, the local front-runners had been eliminated. The anger is not confined to die-hard left-wingers or old-Labour stalwarts. Many of those who are privately complaining about the way the decisions are being handled are generally very loyal to Mr Blair.

The supporters of Ian Smart, the solicitor to the Scottish Labour Party, and the man regarded for several years as the natural successor to Mr Hogg, knew in advance that he was out of favour. Although a loyalist, he fell out with the leadership last year over its line on a referendum for Scotland.

But many in his local party were dismayed to see a list of four strongly Blairite women, only one of whom is connected with the constituency. Rosemary McKenna, a former president of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, is a leading member of The Network, described recently as "the vanguard of the Blair revolution in Scottish Labour". She has been frequently named as the front-runner, though it is well-known that such prophesies often turn out to be self-denying.

According to one party member, "If he had been on that shortlist he would have walked it."

Warrington, like Cumbernauld and Kilsyth, has a shortlist consisting of four women. One, a solicitor called Helen Jones, is from neighbouring Widnes. The rest are all London-based: Yvette Cooper, an economics writer on The Independent who lives with Ed Balls, Gordon Brown's policy adviser; Valerie Shawcross, a former National Women's Officer; and Valerie Vaz, a broadcaster and sister of Leicester MP Keith Vaz.

There is resignation, rather than anger, in the tone of some disappointed party loyalists who have been left out of these processes. "I think the national executive were, in a coded form, looking for a different kind of person," one said. "New Labour just isn't as community focused."

The outcome of these selection battles will be known next Tuesday - leaving the chosen few on the shortlists with less than a week to put their cases. The one-member-one-vote ballots may well bring some surprises as local party members express their annoyance at not being given a full field to choose from.

But whoever gains from these tightly-controlled games of political chairs, one thing is certain. Tony Blair can be sure of deep gratitude to the New Labour machine rooted in a handful of offices around Westminster.