AN EARLY election for the Labour leadership will be ordered on Wednesday by the party's national executive committee (NEC) to preserve John Smith's 'legacy' of party unity.
The successor to Mr Smith, who was buried on Saturday on the Scottish island of Iona, will be 'crowned' in late July. The party leadership will face protests from left-wingers who want to delay until the annual party conference in October, but it believes a swift election will unite Labour for its summer offensive on the Government.
The campaign will officially begin on June 10, immediately after the European elections, but the campaign teams are already in action. Gordon Brown yesterday put down a clear marker for the leadership with a speech in Wales setting out his own vision for the future of the Labour Party. It was coupled with a strong plea for party unity.
'We have too much to do together in the service of our country for us to hesitate or fail now in our task. We have journeyed, climbed, struggled and worked together too long for any discord to come between us and our goal.
'Labour is the party that, itself united, is ready to unite this country,' Mr Brown said at the Welsh Labour conference in Swansea.
Some on the left suspect a leadership fix. Activists in Wales feared the party was being bounced by the media support for Tony Blair. They believe a early contest will help Mr Blair or Mr Brown, and leave candidates from the left, such as John Prescott and Robin Cook, too little time to campaign on the issues, such as full employment, which John Edmonds, the GMB union leader, put forward as a litmus test for leading Labour.
Sources said a July election is supported by David Blunkett, this year's party chairman; Margaret Beckett, the deputy leader; Larry Whitty, the general secretary of the party; and key trade union leaders on the NEC.
''We have to preserve John Smith's legacy of unity and strength. We want a short and effective leadership contest. We don't want to break up the unity in the party,' said one senior Labour source.
Party unity may be put to the test amid growing signs that Mr Brown and Mr Blair may be forced to fight each other in the new transferable-vote ballots. While Mr Brown left trade unionists and party activists in no doubt of his leadership qualities, there were few signs it would stop the momentum behind Mr Blair. Support for him has steadily grown in the Shadow Cabinet.
Mr Blair's hopes were boosted yesterday by a poll in the Sunday Post which put him ahead even in Scotland, Mr Brown's political base. The poll showed 37.3 per cent of voters favoured Mr Blair against 32.7 per cent for Mr Brown.
Calls to delay the Labour contest were led by The Campaign Group of left-wing Labour MPs.
Mr Blunkett, speaking on BBC radio, rejected warnings by John Evans, the Labour MP, who had told fellow members of the NEC that a July election may risk a legal challenge, because of the practical difficulties in balloting thousands of constituency members and trade union levy payers.
'We will not be putting forward options that cannot be carried out, which do not fit the constitution of the Labour Party. We will all know what the issues are and above all, the style of leadership which will pull us together,' Mr Blunkett said.
The bookmakers William Hill made Mr Blair the 2-5 favourite; Gordon Brown 3-1; John Prescott 4-1; Robin Cook 14-1; Margaret Beckett 25-1; Jack Cunningham 50-1 and Neil Kinnock 100-1.
Union warning, page 2
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies