Shadow cabinet poll may be last

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Indy Politics
The shadow Cabinet elections held last night could be the last before the next general election, as a wide range of Labour MPs backed the idea of scrapping next year's contest if the present parliament continues into 1997.

Significantly, the plan was backed by the left-wing MP for Neath, Peter Hain, who told the Independent: "Although I am a strong supporter of electing the shadow Cabinet - and I'll defend that principle to the last - I think there's a strong case, in view of the imminence of the general election, for having a settled team which can concentrate on beating the Tories rather than worrying about being internally re-elected."

A recent poll of Labour MPs found a narrow majority opposed to permanently abolishing shadow Cabinet elections, but Mr Hain's move could signal a shift of opinion next year. It makes it more likely that the team chosen yesterday would form the Cabinet if Tony Blair wins the next election. However, Mr Blair's office said the Labour leader had "no plans" to scrap next year's ballot.

Kate Hoey, Labour MP for Vauxhall and a strong supporter of Mr Blair, yesterday stepped up her campaign against the "charade" of annual elections. She said: "The Labour Party voted overwhelmingly for Tony Blair. If we trust him, why don't we trust him to make appointments?"

The Labour left insists that the elections are essential to make the leadership accountable. Labour shadow Cabinet elections have taken place since 1923, but opponents claim the elections are a distraction, and reflect regional and factional horse-trading rather than merit.

The shadow Cabinet contest remains vitally important, however, because of standing order E of the rules of the Parliamentary Labour Party. This commits Mr Blair to appointing all the members of his shadow cabinet - which is formally known as the Parliamentary Committee - to the Cabinet in a Labour government.

Mr Blair was asked last month if he would abide by this rule, and said he was happy with it. But it gives him no flexibility if Labour wins the next election. If he has 23 members in his Cabinet, as John Major now has, they are accounted for by himself, his deputy, John Prescott, the 19 elected shadow cabinet members, the shadow Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, and Derek Foster. Mr Foster, the outgoing Chief Whip, was promised a Cabinet post as part of the deal in which he gave up the job.

In a rule change agreed as part of that deal, Mr Blair will appoint a new Chief Whip, probably tomorrow, from among his new shadow cabinet. Donald Dewar, currently social security spokesman, is favourite.

Once in government, Mr Blair would have the power to make Cabinet appointments. The unanswered question is how long the inherited shadow cabinet has to stay before he could reshuffle his ministers.

In government, there would be a "liaison committee", including six members elected by backbench Labour MPs, to maintain "an effective two-way channel of communication between the government and backbenches". Election to the shadow cabinet does not mean a pay rise. Only the leader of the opposition and its top three whips are paid more than an MP's salary of pounds 33,189. Mr Blair's salary is pounds 62,480 - he declined to take a pounds 1,777 pay rise in January.