Blair's leftist rebels are out on a limb

The Labour leader is capable of absorbing dissent, but he has the party with him and his patience is limited
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Ken Vincent, trade union official and chairman of the Grimsby Constituency Labour Party, isn't a household name. A short interview he gave to BBC Radio's World this Weekend on Sunday went unnoticed in the sound and fury of the Labour leadership's latest showdown with Ken Livingstone and Diane Abbott over their public accusations that the leadership rigged the Shadow Cabinet elections. But it probably does rather more to illuminate a still counter-intuitive truth about the Labour Party's transformation.

Vincent said he was broadly in favour of a single currency, and while he respected the sincerity of the Euro-sceptic views of his local MP, Austin Mitchell, he would certainly ask him to reconsider if he planned to vote against the policy of a Labour government on the issue. So he didn't want Mitchell to turn into the Bill Cash of a Labour administration? "No," said Vincent firmly. "I wouldn't at all. The next Labour government has to build itself on teamwork and not individualism."

Vincent is only one of 635 party chairmen, Mitchell only one of 272 Labour MPs (and incidentally one of the most cogent protagonists of an alternative Labour economic and European strategy). But the exchange illustrates the extent to which it is the parliamentary party, of all the branches of Labour, which has proved most resistant to the Blairite transformation. And it cuts with spectacular symbolism across the classic Seventies and Eighties model of the relationship between MP and his local constituency: Right-winger Under Reselection Threat from Loony Left-wing Party. Instead, at least in Grimsby, we have the once unthinkable prospect of: Anti-EU MP Under Pressure from Pro-Single Currency Party Activists.

This is a potent reminder of the changed background against which Blair has now found himself at odds with two or three of his most unruly MPs on the hard left of the party. Those of his predecessors who became Prime Minister were elected to the party leadership solely by the Parliamentary Labour Party. By contrast, he was elected by all three sections of an electoral college - a system, paradoxically, which was forced on the party by the Bennite left in the Eighties. It is a safe bet that, despite all the tensions which have been exposed over the past week, Blair would be overwhelmingly re-elected as leader if there was a vote only of MPs today. But he also enjoys a mandate that goes much wider than, and is therefore not solely in the gift of, the PLP.

This doesn't mean for a moment that MPs don't matter. Conservative constituency parties are a good deal more steadfast in their loyalty to the leader than Tory MPs. But that hasn't stopped John Major from being chronically tormented by MPs, often in defiance of their constituency chairmen.

It is not too fanciful to say that this is part of the problem for Labour. A decade or more ago, a Labour leader could - and sometimes did - appeal to his party to follow the example of the party's main political opponents by showing their discipline and unity. Blair would rightly get a pretty hollow laugh if he were to try that tack at a meeting of the PLP today.

Nevertheless, given his own impregnability, shouldn't Blair relax about the odd disloyalty from a small and vociferous band of MPs? Only up to a point. John Curtice, the Strathclyde University pollster, argued in the Independent on Sunday this month that only by exposing itself as divided can Labour now lose the election. It is the Tories, rather than Labour, who are now seen as extreme and out of touch with the electors. Curtice's inference was that Blair therefore "no longer needs to take the risk" of further alienating his party and should concentrate on "party management" to ensure unity.

It is safe to assume that Blair agrees that divisions are the biggest threat to a Labour victory, but not with Curtice's seductive conclusion. He is capable of the odd touch of Wilsonian party management. Along with several frontbenchers, including the able Ian McCartney, a close ally of John Prescott, Blair will today promote Peter Hain. Given that he publicly called on Hain less than two years ago to "grow up", this attests to his ability to absorb and convert dissent. And he would not be well advised to conduct some vendetta against those on the left, such as Tony Banks, Chris Mullin or Dennis Skinner, to pick three at random, who still spend conspicuously more time attacking Tories than criticising the leadership.

But it looks as though Livingstone and Abbott fall into a different category. Livingstone, fresh from attacking the leadership in the Tory tabloids, had a bad day yesterday. Irene Adams, the Scottish Labour MP named by Livingstone as having been pressured not to stand for the Shadow Cabinet, denied the charge persuasively. It was no secret that the Labour leader didn't want a contest for the Shadow Cabinet elections. But there is irresistible contemporary evidence that runners-up in last year's elections, like Alistair Darling and Brian Wilson, decided off their own bat not to stand weeks, if not months ago. And some MPs - including Banks - did stand without having any bones broken. Livingstone could, of course, have done the same.

There is no imminent threat to remove the whip from either Livingstone or Abbott - a draconian measure which would deprive them of their right to stand as official candidates. But I have the strong impression that Blair's patience with them is running out.

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