TONY BLAIR was accused of "purging" another group of his internal party critics last night after 11 members of the European Parliament were effectively deselected by the Labour leadership.
The 11 MEPs were given places so low in Labour's "pecking order" that they stand little chance of retaining their seats in next June's elections to the Strasbourg parliament.
Under the system of proportional representation to be used in Britain for the first time, people will be able to vote only for a party rather than for individual candidates. So the parties' rankings in each region will play a critical role in deciding who wins.
Labour officials expect the 62 seats they won in the last Euro elections to be reduced to about 40 because of the introduction of PR, with the Tories and Liberal Democrats making gains.
But what outraged left-wingers was the order of candidates approved by Labour's National Executive Committee (NEC) yesterday after would-be MEPs were interviewed by regional panels at the weekend.
Loyalists have been parachuted in over the heads of 11 sitting MEPs, who find themselves dropped so far down the "batting order" that they face an almost impossible struggle to hold their seats.
The new faces who stand a strong chance of winning include Michael Cashman, the actor and gay rights campaigner, who also hopes to be elected to the NEC next week, and Claude Moraes, director of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants.
In contrast, Michael Elliott, MEP for London West, was placed last on the party's slate in the capital, below four new candidates.
The other sitting Labour MEPs who were demoted were: Hugh McMahon (Strathclyde West); Alex Smith (South of Scotland); Gordon Adam (Northumbria); Christine Oddy (Coventry and North Warwickshire); David Hallam (Herefordshire and Shropshire); Mike Tappin (Staffordshire West and Congleton); Shaun Spiers (London South East); Carol Tongue (London East); Richard Balfe (London South Inner) and Robert Evans (London North West).
Diane Abbott, a member of the NEC, said: "There will be a suspicion that people have been pushed to the bottom of the list for political reasons rather than for their contribution in the past."
Ken Coates, a left-wing MEP expelled by Labour in January, said: "This is political assassination by Millbank [Labour's headquarters] which was planned on Peter Mandelson's kitchen table."
Mr Blair's critics saw the list as a move to crack down on one of the last remaining bastions of "old Labour". The Prime Minister was furious when left-wing MEPs publicly attacked his plan to ditch Clause 4 in 1985 and heckled him when he addressed their group.
Labour officials said the selection process took account of what candidates could bring to the European Parliament and their knowledge of Europe. "It is based on getting the best candidates, not their political views," said a party spokesman.
Tom Sawyer, Labour's general secretary, said the candidates would reflect "real Britain" and was pleased that 34 women and six black people would be among the party's 84 candidates.
Mr Blair showed his determination to act against allegations of sleaze when the NEC yesterday suspended five members of the Slough constituency party from holding party office.
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