A MINISTERIAL visit to a Welsh constituency has been interpreted as a sign the party fears losing its safest parliamentary seat if an Assembly Member launches an independent breakaway bid.
Blaenau Gwent AM Peter Law threatened to stand as an independent candidate in a General Election after the constituency chose its next Labour candidate from an all-women short list.
As Labour yesterday began gearing up for a spring election by diverting attention to its record on the economy and public services, it was revealed party chairman Ian McCartney will attend a "pre-Christmas social" in Blaenau Gwent tonight.
The location of the event has been kept secret to evade pro-hunting protesters who clashed with police outside a Labour Party dinner in Cardiff last week.
The visit has been seen as an attempt to bolster local party member's enthusiasm, dented by Mr Law being frozen out of the selection process for a candidate to succeed current MP Llew Smith.
But Labour sources say the popular Mr Law may have enough backing to clinch the seat's 19,000 majority.
Losing Blaenau Gwent would be a calamity for Labour. The seat has been occupied by Labour greats like Aneurin Bevan and former party leader Michael Foot.
The party's candidate is Maggie Jones, a union official, but the local party association voted to oppose an all woman short list in October 2003.
Current MP Llew Smith, who plans to stand down at the next election, which look likely to happen early next year, said Ms Jones's selection process was a pretext to hoist a Blairite candidate on the county.
If Mr Law did stand as an independent it would have disastrous consequences for Labour in the National Assembly. He would be expelled from the party and it would lose its slim governing majority.
Mr Law said, "I have never withdrawn my statement that I would consider standing as an independent.
"There's immense feeling in the community. It is perhaps worse even than when the selection was made. There's very deep seated ill-feeling among the community about what has happened and the way in which we have been exploited. People are not going to let it go lightly."
He said he was not going to the event with Mr McCartney.
"Most party activists are not working in the General Election campaign at all and many have left the party in disgust," he said.
Mr Smith said, "If Peter Law decided to stand then in my opinion there's a serious chance that he will win - partly because of the high regard which the constituency has for him and also because the Labour Party in Cardiff is treating the electorate like idiots.
"People in Blaenau Gwent don't care less if it is a man or a woman. But they recognise the tradition of our community and they are not going to have some New Labourite dumped on them."
Ms Jones said, "There is a small hard core of party members who are unhappy, but the overwhelming majority of the members and the electorate at large are very happy with me.
"Most people would be quite offended if Peter Law stood. People demand more loyalty than that. They really don't like traitors and it would be a great dereliction of duty if he left the party at this stage."
Ms Jones, 49, was born in Cardiff and splits her time between her home in Brynmawr, near Ebbw Vale, and work for Unison in London. She said she had invited Mr McCartney, who is also visiting the National Assembly.
"It's a favour for a friend," she added.
A Welsh Labour spokesperson said, "Maggie Jones was selected by the Labour party under Labour party rules and has got a very successful campaign team in there. There's nothing to read into the visit and there is a strong Labour candidate up there."