The hard left hangs on to old certainties

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Indy Politics
PATRICIA WYNN DAVIES

and COLIN BROWN

The battle by the left-winger Liz Davies to be accepted as a parliamentary candidate came to a bitter end yesterday after Labour delegates voted by two to one in favour of the party leadership.

In a perfunctory and acrimonious debate, lasting barely 20 minutes, the conference crushed a move to press the national executive to reconsider last week's 17-5 decision to refuse to endorse her as the candidate for Leeds North East.

The only possible avenue of protest open to Ms Davies and the Leeds North East constituency party, which selected her from a women-only short-list, is the rocky and uncertain territory of court action.

After leaving the hall in tears, Ms Davies, who remains an Islington councillor and party member, said: "I am not a Trotskyist. The only reason for refusing to endorse me is my association with Labour Briefing [the left-wing journal]. It is not a proscribed magazine. It upholds an old tradition of political satire. This decision is unprecedented."

Moving the reference back of the National Executive Committee's report, Barbara Levy, the Leeds North East constituency delegate, said the affair had produced "some of the most shameful manoeuvrings anyone has seen in this party". Railing against "smears and innuendo", she complained that "metropolitan politicos" [on Islington council, where Ms Davies chairs the women's committee], had taken precedence over the democratic rights of her constituency party. Conference organisers failed to deliver an earlier promise to allow a second Davies supporter to speak.

Heckled with cries of "shame" from left-wingers, an uneasy Clare Short, Labour's women's spokesperson, swiftly wound up the debate by saying the 31-year-old barrister's stated views and track record did not make her a "suitable candidate" at the next election.

Making no apology for what is a "political" veto, rather than one based on breach of party rules or discipline, Ms Short made clear that Ms Davies' previous role as editorial board member of the "nasty, vicious" Labour Briefing was the main reason she was excluded.

"Trotskyist entryism" had helped lose Labour the last four elections by creating an atmosphere of "nastiness and division", Ms Short declared.

Breaking off at one point to tell hecklers "this is undemocratic behaviour and it does your case no good", Ms Short said: "We are planning to form the next government - bring hope, fairness and compassion to our country. . . we need candidates who understand this and will respect party democracy and help to carry through and explain difficult decisions."

Tony Benn, the MP for Chesterfield, said afterwards: "Liz Davies is the sacrificial lamb being offered to the mass- media to establish the idea that the Labour Party is different from what it has always been. It isn't. It is the same Labour Party.

"I would be happy to see Liz Davies the leader of the Labour Party," he added.

A veteran of the left, Mr Benn compared her proscription by the leadership with the expulsion of Nye Bevan and Stafford Cripps from the Labour Party.

"The trade-union delegations who voted against Liz Davies are the real embarrassment to new Labour ... If Liz had written for the Sun instead of Labour Briefing, she would have been honoured by a special visit from the leader to Australia."

Her supporters in Leeds North East could face disciplinary action if they defy the NEC's decision by refusing to accept another candidate to fight the seat.

Also, Ms Davies could become a cause celebre against Tony Blair's leadership by the left, which has been increasingly marginalised at the conference.

t A move to cancel Labour's policy of reserving half of all winnable seats for women was defeated yesterday. A motion from Slough Labour Party to end the policy, described by Tony Blair as "not ideal at all", was easily defeated on a show of hands.

William Howard, from Slough, complained the policy contained a principle "which is being abused and manipulated"- his party has had an all-women short-list imposed upon it by the party's NEC. But the conference supported Ms Short in insisting that the policy must continue at least until the next election, with several delegates arguing that it should continue until 50 per cent of Labour MPs are women.

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