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Wednesday, November 11, 1998 Published at 10:28 GMT

UK Politics

Blair faces control freak jibes

Tony Blair: Increasing unrest

By Political Correspondent Nick Assinder

Tony Blair is facing serious rebellions on all fronts over his alleged "control freak" tendencies.

Labour members are becoming increasingly angry over the party's determination to exert an iron grip over all aspects of the selection of candidates for key seats.

And they are calling on the prime minister to reassert his support for more democracy within the party.

The concern surrounds the selection of candidates for major elections which could have widespread consequences for the government.

There has been growing resentment over what is seen as Mr Blair's insistence on having Welsh secretary Alun Michael chosen as Labour's candidate for the leader of the Cardiff assembly over local favourite Rhodri Morgan.

That has been intensified by apparent attempts to ensure left-winger Ken Livingstone is not selected as the party's candidate for the powerful new job of London mayor.

And disgruntled backbencher Dennis Canavan is threatening to stand as an independent against an official Labour candidate in the Scottish parliamentary elections.

Stitch up

At the same time, there is a running battle between the Commons and Tory peers, backed by some Labour Lords, over the use of the "closed list" system for European elections.

That sees people voting for a party, not individual candidates, leaving the leadership to decide which names from their list are given Euro seats.

[ image: Alun Michael: Blair's man]
Alun Michael: Blair's man
Both Mr Morgan and Mr Livingstone have expressed their fears over the consequences for Mr Blair if he appears to be trying to stitch up the selection procedures.

And both have insisted they believe the prime minister, who was elected on a platform supporting one member one vote, will let the party grass roots have their say.

But Mr Canavan has claimed he is the victim of "Stalinist" tactics. He is furious that the leadership refused to chose him as a candidate for the Scottish parliament while it considered him "good enough" to be a Westminster MP.

And he could find himself expelled from the party if he insists on standing against an official candidate.

Despite constant denials from Labour party headquarters, few really believe that Downing Street does not have a view on the selections and is not letting that view be widely known.

It is whispered loudly that the prime minister does not trust Mr Morgan's judgement - code for saying he doesn't trust him to toe the line.

Bogey man

And it is no secret that Mr Livingstone is seen as a sort of backbench bogey man. The leadership fear he would use his position as mayor to attack the New Labour government in much the way he harried Margaret Thatcher's administration when he was leader of the old Greater London Council. Mr Canavan is also seen as a troublemaking left-winger.

There is also widespread suspicion that the closed list system for Euro elections would ensure only moderate, Blairite candidates would ever make it onto the list.

And no matter how often the leadership insists that it is not interfering in the selection of candidates for Wales and London, many party members simply do not believe them.

[ image: Anyone but Ken]
Anyone but Ken
It is widely accepted that Mr Michel had to be "persuaded" to stand against Mr Morgan and it has long been known that Mr Blair was desperately seeking a "stop Red Ken" candidate for London.

Meanwhile, the Tories - only recent converts to the notion of one member one vote - are having a field day with the divisions.

Fertile territory

Chairman Michael Ancram summed up the growing unease when he declared: "Labour's control freak mentality is coming home to haunt them.

"Their desperate attempts to stop Ken Livingstone in London, Rhodri Morgan in Wales and any European candidate they don't like show a Party obsessed with control. It has so far produced condemnation in Wales and ridicule in London."

This is fertile territory for the opposition, as Labour members are notoriously paranoid at the best of times.

The danger for Mr Blair is that, he may get his own way, but he risks having candidates in key jobs who are written off as placemen before they even start.

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