It is possible that as many as 10 sitting Labour MPs will stand down late, which will provide a chance for allies of the leader’s office to find seats in a final rush before the general election in May.
Watson, a former government minister and backbench campaigner, said: “It is remarkably early for the leader’s office to take such influence over Labour selections. The effect of this change is to deprive rank-and-file activists and ordinary party members of the right to a full one member, one vote selection as envisaged by John Smith.
“It makes it more likely that selected special advisers and people that have spent their whole lives in politics will be selected at the expense of ordinary party members. The changes means that there is a danger that candidates will be filtered out and not put on the shortlist.”
Some sources concede however that such short-circuiting of the selection process so close to a general election is understandable as the party simply does not have the time to allow a full selection process, which would involve the local constituency party selecting a short list.
The main reform endorsed by the Labour national executive committee this week is that, from December 11, an NEC selection panel will choose the shortlist to put to a local party.
Critics of the decision argue that with a fixed-term parliament it would have been possible to keep the full selection process open for longer. They say that strong local candidates could be excluded from shortlists as the leader’s office and unions divide up the remaining seats. At least three or four senior party aides are looking for a seat.
Typically some Labour MPs wait until the last minute to stand down, either because they are undecided or because they have come to a deal with the leadership that the seat will effectively be reserved for a party favourite and the MP standing down will be offered a seat in the Lords if they wish to take it.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010