Labour MPs' anger at new poll rules `control'

Paul Waugh
Monday 28 June 1999 23:02 BST

LABOUR OFFICIALS dismissed renewed accusations of "control freakery" yesterday after it emerged that all the party's MPs would be subject to tough new reselection rules.

To the surprise of many backbenchers, Labour's general secretary, Margaret McDonagh, has written to every sitting MP asking them to declare their intention to stand at the next general election.

In a move attacked by some critics as a panic response to recent backbench rebellions, local parties will be sent a copy of the Chief Whip's report on the MP's voting record in the Commons. An internal party document states that the Chief Whip will present a report to the National Executive Committee detailing all "unauthorised absences, abstentions and votes against the whip".

Mrs McDonagh's letter, which calls for MPs to respond by tomorrow, is believed to have triggered the decision of several veteran parliamentarians to step down. Tony Benn, MP for Chesterfield, and Robert Sheldon, MP for Ashton under Lyne, announced their retirement over the weekend and William Michie, MP for Sheffield Heeley, confirmed yesterday he would step down.

Under the new rules, sitting MPs will need the backing of just 50 per cent of the votes of their local party rather than 75 per cent in a trigger ballot for reselection. However, the requirement to hold a one-member, one-vote ballot agreed at last year's Labour Party conference, has been ditched by the NEC. Instead, a 45-minute meeting of local activists will determine whether a full reselection ballot should be held. The MP will not be allowed to attend the meeting and can only submit a personal statement on two sides of A4 paper.

The internal document states that the Chief Whip can recommend that all MPs with "exceptionally poor records" are interviewed by the NEC prior to endorsement as prospective parliamentary candidates.

Dennis Canavan, the independent member of the Scottish Parliament and expelled Labour MP, denounced the new procedures as evidence of yet more "control freakery" by Millbank. However, party officials deny the rules are an attempt to make it easier to deselect troublesome left-wingers and claim that any MP with the backing of the local party will pass through the process unscathed.

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