TONY BLAIR was embroiled in a vote-rigging row last night over attempts by Labour MPs to influence the elections to the party's ruling National Executive Committee.
Critics of Mr Blair, who hope to give him a "bloody nose" by electing left-wingers to the NEC, accused Blairites of breaching the party's code of conduct for the elections by mobilising MPs to urge party members to vote for loyalist candidates. Mr Blair's opponents claim this is the latest example of "control freakery" in the way he runs his party.
The Left won four of the six NEC seats representing constituency parties in last year's elections after an attack by Labour's Millbank headquarters on left-wing candidates backfired. This year, Labour officials promised there would be no Blairite slate of candidates and have ensured a low- key campaign, in which voting ends on Monday.
However, The Independent has obtained letters written by Labour MPs appealing to members of their local parties to support six loyalist candidates, including Michael Cashman, the former EastEnders actor, and Lord Sawyer, the party's former general secretary. Although Labour claims the letters were written on the MPs' own initiative, one Millbank official admitted yesterday: "There is an orchestrated campaign involving MPs to win support for an unofficial slate. The aim is to prevent the Left using the elections to fire a shot across Tony Blair's bows."
The letters leave the choice up to party members, but make a clear recommendation. Joan Ruddock, the former minister for Women, told activists in her Lewisham Deptford constituency: "Last year, many members asked me for my advice and wanted to know who I would be voting for." She said that the six candidates she endorsed "will make an excellent contribution to the work of the NEC".
Bob Ainsworth, MP for Coventry North East, told his party's members: "If you need any suggestions these are the colleagues I shall be voting for and why. Of course you must make your own minds up."
Several Labour MPs are believed to have sent similar letters in a move which has angered left-wing candidates in the elections. Mark Seddon, the editor of Tribune newspaper, who was elected to the NEC last year, is to demand an inquiry into the MPs' intervention when the executive meets next month.
"This is a breach of the code of conduct agreed by the NEC," said Mr Seddon. "The party is not supposed to side with any particular candidates. Clearly this message has not got through to the MPs."
The left-wing Grassroots Alliance, whose triumph in last year's poll embarrassed the party leadership, is urging members to use the elections to "send a message to Tony Blair about the direction of our Labour government". It says that backing the alliance "is the clearest way for party members to signal their discontent with the current extreme centralisation of power" by the party leadership.
The other left-wing candidates are Liz Davies, Pete Willsman, Christine Shawcroft, Ann Black and Bill Butler. The others on the Blairite ticket are Diana Jeuda, Adrian Bailey, Delyth Morgan and Ruth Turner. Last year's elections were dogged by left-wing claims of a leadership "stitch-up". They alleged that running totals of cast votes were being leaked to national party bosses during the ballot, enabling pro-Blair candidates to maximise votes.
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