Mark Seddon: The political faultline in our party is exposed

It is a poor way to run a party that is already deeply traumatised by a disastrous war

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So the expected night of the long knives has instead become a week of blunt instruments. The Prime Minister's much delayed pre-election reshuffle already has some wags claiming that Tony Blair couldn't even shuffle a deck of cards successfully - especially as one of the players destined for the chop, Andrew Smith, managed to shuffle off on his own accord.

So the expected night of the long knives has instead become a week of blunt instruments. The Prime Minister's much delayed pre-election reshuffle already has some wags claiming that Tony Blair couldn't even shuffle a deck of cards successfully - especially as one of the players destined for the chop, Andrew Smith, managed to shuffle off on his own accord.

Some of those same wags - many in the parliamentary press gallery - are also bemoaning the prospect of another elongated Gordon Brown post reshuffle sulk, and the added impetus to what is the longest running political soap opera of modern times: the Gordon and Tony End of the Pier Show.

There is nothing surprising or necessarily controversial about cabinet reshuffles. They happen. All party leaders feel an occasional need to reshuffle the pack and, despite appearances, Blair is not by nature a hirer and firer. Many of the faces around the top table back in 1997 are still there. I recall one former minister who got the chop telling me that Blair had crocodile tears in his eyes as he fired him. It is the manner in which reshuffles are carried out that counts, as well as what drives them.

Andrew Smith withstood weeks of apparent Government-inspired speculation, while the chairman of the Labour Party, Ian McCartney, has been under the cosh for most of the time he has held the post. A bewildering array of possible replacements for McCartney have been paraded in front of an incredulous party - they have ranged from Tessa Jowell, to Peter Hain and now the hot favourite Alan Milburn, who had given every impression of wanting to spend considerably more time with his family than the 14 months or so that he has managed.

Add fevered press speculation to the magical "sources close to", and the result is recrimination and bruised egos before any reshuffle can, in New Labour parlance, be "rolled out". It's a rum way to run the country, and a poor way to lead a political party that is already deeply traumatised by a disastrous war in the Middle East.

However, the political faultline that runs through the modern Labour Party is in the process of being exposed - and contrary to the misgivings of the Downing Street soothsayers and truth doctors - it might just do Labour and our wider democracy the power of good. For the Blair/Brown divide is less personal than ideological; it is also about the future direction of the party and what any third-term Labour Government might shape up to be. And as Tony Benn would have it, the row over the party chairman in particular is about how much democracy and accountability our increasingly autocratic Prime Minister is prepared to allow in the party.

There have been three party chairmen in as many years, all appointed by Blair - and in true Kafkaesque fashion, since the party's ruling national executive still elects a chairman each year, currently the redoubtable trade union campaigner, Mary Turner. Charles Clarke, John Reid and now Ian McCartney were appointed in spite of the party's rule book, and much to the chagrin of the trade unions. Their anger was muted as Clarke was viewed as an emollient figure, Reid was feared and McCartney is seen both as a friend and - as that other rarity - someone who can speak to the party in a language it can understand.

Last month, with Tony Blair absent, a succession of NEC members told John Prescott to pass on the message that the party wanted Ian McCartney to stay in the post, and they were tired of reading political obituaries to him in the press. Prescott in turn has apparently told colleagues that he will "go to the wire" over McCartney. It may be that "JP" has prevailed should the eventual reshuffle produce some form of jobshare between Messrs McCartney and Milburn. In which case, New Labour will be the first party to proudly post three chairmen.

But not if Gordon Brown and his supporters or the trade unions have their way. Blair may see in Milburn an "attack monster" ready to be unloosed on the hapless Tories. But many in what used to describe itself as the "Labour movement" see in him an ambitious Blairite who would use any new position atop the party to push through an even more right-wing, privatising agenda.

Brown and Milburn have famously crossed swords over the latter's enthusiasm for foundation hospitals, and Milburn's new found enthusiasm for market solutions to perceived public service failures brings tears to the eyes to those who remember a younger Alan Milburn opposing the introduction of pay-to-view television in hospitals as back-door privatisation.

As the Prime Minister's placeman commanding the party machinery, Milburn would not only be able to range at will over all policy areas, he would have a commanding role over the manifesto and be the de facto Government spokesman on the media. For those who wondered why the Chancellor felt so aggrieved at being deprived of a place on the NEC earlier in the year, they have their answer. For whosoever has the party machine straddles both Labour's election campaign strategy and its future policy - and there's the rub.

The writer is a member of Labour's National Executive Committee

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