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Last Updated: Monday, 14 May 2007, 17:13 GMT 18:13 UK
Could the left damage Brown?
By Nick Assinder
Political correspondent, BBC News website

Gordon Brown says he wants a contest for the Labour leadership, and it looks like he may get one.

John McDonnell
Mr McDonnell is now seeking MPs' backing

Left-winger John McDonnell is confident he can summon enough support from Labour MPs to get his name on the ballot paper later this week.

And it is probably fair to say that most in the Labour Party will be happy if he succeeds in jumping that first hurdle, although it is still far from a foregone conclusion.

There is a widespread belief amongst MPs and party members that a leadership campaign, with the debate it would, would be good for the party and give Mr Brown an early boost by neutralising claims he has no mandate.

Few believe Mr McDonnell can win, although he is optimistic enough to claim the result is far from predictable, particularly as he perceives a real demand for change amongst grassroots party members.

And the thing that may well have led to Michael Meacher failing to win enough backing - his support for the Iraq war - may be the thing that drives many votes to Mr McDonnell, who opposed it from the start.

Dangerous tactic

Mr Brown might certainly relish a contest he would expect to win handsomely and, he will believe, finally bury the remains of Old, left, Labour. And most still see that as the most likely outcome if there is a contest.

Gordon Brown
Mr Brown says he would welcome a challenge
There had even been suggestion he might "lend" some of his supporters to Mr McDonnell to ensure he gets onto the ballot paper and allow the contest to go ahead.

However that would be a dangerous tactic for a man who has put transparency and the ending of spin at the centre of his appeal.

There is another danger for Gordon Brown, though, in the sheer unpredictability of the voting by the electoral college - a third Labour MPs, Peers and Euro MPs; a third trades unions and a third constituency members.

While the chancellor can be confident he will win the overwhelming backing of MPs - who of course know their futures rest on doing well at the next election - the other sections are less straightforward.

Mr McDonnell will attract those remnants of Old Labour and the left who have always been opposed to New Labour.

Shock result

He may even get the endorsement of some union bosses, although it will be up to the unions to ballot their individual Labour-affiliated members.

And he is likely to win support amongst grassroots members who are disillusioned with the direction of the Blair-Brown government.

It is still highly unlikely that could produce a shock result - but that is not really the point.

If enough individual members believe they can express their opposition to the present regime, particularly over Iraq, and their desire for some new thinking, without actually defeating Mr Brown, they may hand Mr McDonnell a decent result.

And if he succeeded in winning anything like around, say 25% of the vote, that would send a loud message to Mr Brown that he would find difficult to ignore.

It might also damage his premiership from day one.

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