PAUL WILENIUS: Legend has it, that someone
somewhere is watching every move Labour MPs make. Looking for signs of
dissent, opposition, even rebellion. When inflation and employment are
at record lows and money's pouring into key public services, it would hardly
seem necessary. But it is - because backbench anxieties are growing.
Those close to Tony Blair
often dismiss Labour backbench critics as "the usual suspects". But the
number of suspects lining up to attack the government over issues like
Iraq, the Post Office, workers' rights and much more, are growing daily.
Although it's not a rebellion yet - it does show a deep and pervasive unease
sweeping through the Labour Party in Parliament.
Labour leaders couldn't
have missed the anxiety sparked off by the threat of an invasion of Iraq.
The scale of the undercurrent of concern was shown in a recent survey for
On The Record, where Cabinet Minister Clare Short also raised doubts. Now
more than one hundred backbenchers have signed an early day motion opposing
an attack and those fears are shared by many ministers and former ministers.
GLENDA JACKSON MP: If indeed George W Bush is talking
about a pre-emptive strike upon Iraq, based on his argument that it is
a rogue state with the capacity not only to make but also deliver weapons
of mass destruction, then I for one would wish to see the evidence, the
irrefutable evidence that that is the case before I would consent to British
troops being put on the ground in Iraq.
TONY LLOYD MP: At this moment in time there
would be enormous unease on the Labour benches about the idea of any kind
of intervention within Iraq, because as yet, the case simply is not proven.
WILENIUS: What is now proven, is
that concerns over Iraq have not been eased by sending at least seventeen
hundred more British troops to Afghanistan. Even those who have supported
action so far, are now worried.
JACKSON: I had absolutely no problems
at all with the action that America took after the events of September
11th nor the support that the British government gave to America in that.
I am concerned over this particular deployment as to how long are they
going to be there, as some one, one of my colleagues said what are the
chains of command.
IAN DAVIDSON MP: I think there is a great deal
of unease in the Labour back benches about troops going in to Afghanistan,
because we're not sure what the end purpose is. We don't want British troops
just be used as the equivalent of America's Gurkas, there to shed blood
in order to avoid the Americans having body bags. We're not also clear
what the Americans' overall strategy is, I mean is this the first step
and the second step is an attack on Iraq.
WILENIUS: Those hunting for evidence
of discontent on the Labour backbenches can find it in the number of MPs
now willing to sign up to Commons' Early Day Motions, critical of government
policy. In 1997, only fifty-eight Labour MPs opposed the government over
cuts to lone parent benefits, even though there was widespread anger in
the party. Yet now Labour MPs are much more willing to speak out and
a hundred and four have declared their opposition to military action against
Iraq, while a hundred and thirty-seven want the government to slow down
the controversial policy of opening up the Post Office to competition.
DAVIDSON: After the '97 election,
people were committed to making a success of a Labour government and therefore
they were prepared to put up with almost anything. The Lone Parent Benefits
was a revolt because we thought that the government had got it wrong. Look
how many people like myself didn't vote against the government on that
issue because we were prepared to give them the balance of the doubt. Now
there's a feeling that it's not just individual decisions that are wrong,
but that the whole drift of the government is in the wrong direction and
that we're not being listened to at all.
WILENIUS: The government's been
keeping a close eye protests in recent weeks by teachers, the police and
postal workers. In particular anger is growing over the threat to the universal
postal service, after the move by the regulator Postcomm to open up the
market to competition. There's a threat to thirty thousand jobs, worries
the cost of the post could soar and that some areas would get a worse service.
JON CRUDDAS MP: I think for a normal back
bencher the fear of having ex hundred or a thousand postman in your constituency
campaigning against a core element of government strategy or the effects
of it in terms of the actions of the regulator is a major concern for back
benchers. I think there's a real danger here with the regulator, far exceeding
the liberalisation agenda that's being pushed in Europe, that that would
push the unions in to a very hostile campaign against the government, which
is a very dangerous and serious situation for the government.
LLOYDS: There seems to be this
hell for leather intent on smashing up what's there and not giving any
real possibility that the things that will come out of it will be strong
and in the public interests. I think government has got to rein the regulator.
WILENIUS: The trade unions are
angry that the party's high command is pushing ahead with plans to transfer
some public sector workers to private sector companies. Even one of Tony
Blair's former advisors is worried that the Prime Minister has not guaranteed
that their working conditions will be protected.
CRUDDAS: It seems to me he's got
to remove key union concerns around reneging on agreements around the transfer
of undertakings and the extension of people's rights when they're contracted
out of the public services. That's absolutely key because that is perceived
to be bad faith and undermines a general process of dialogue and agenda
Outrage has been sparked
off recently among normally loyal union leaders back home by the sight
at the recent European summit of Tony Blair cosying up to Spain's Right
Wing leader Jose Aznar and Italy's Silvio Berlusconi. They're unhappy with
their anti-union agenda. Those views are shared by many Labour MPs.
DAVIDSON: People don't expect a
British Prime Minister, a Labour Prime Minister to have as his closest
allies in Europe, a Spanish Conservative and an Italian Neo-fascist and
for them to collaborate on a programme of introducing free market proposals
and diminishing workers' rights. That's not what back bench Labour MPs
want to see and it's not what the movement wants to see. And it's clear
that that's what's being spun out by the government quite deliberately
and they therefore are reaping the whirl wind of discontent and unhappiness
CRUDDAS: The positioning of the
Prime Minister vis-a-vis Berlusconi and the Spanish over the last few days
sends out the wrong signals. In effect it's a deregulatory agenda that
he is seen to be pushing, despite the fact that over the last five years
we've delivered major individual and collective rights for people at work.
WILENIUS: But it isn't just the
government's policies which are worrying and irritating many Labour backbenchers.
Many have told me they feel excluded, ignored and some dismissed as totally
unimportant by Number Ten.
What agitates many Labour
MPs is being ignored by their leaders, while Number Ten is willing to mount
a huge operation to try to save a special advisor like Jo Moore. There
are now well over forty former Labour Ministers on the backbenches and
at least the same number who know they'll never get a government job. This
means there are now many more potential rebels. Former Ministers say Downing
Street should do more to keep them informed and on side.
GEORGE HOWARTH: Part of the problem between the
government and its own back benches is that sometimes it's caused by one
thing, that they just think well, it's important that we get on with this,
and there's no time to start consulting the backbenchers. And in some issues,
that's probably right. But sometimes it's simply the process excludes
backbenchers altogether and that I think is in the long term the most dangerous
of the two, because you know if people feel alienated, particularly if
Members of Parliament feel alienated, then that does create tensions and
JIM DOWD: I think the processes
are there to engage, but as I say it's not just a question of meeting
people, it's giving them some reassurance that the ideas that they discuss
at the time are taken seriously. You know it's not a question of just patronising
them and saying, look I've come to see you, that's it, it's actually listening
to what people are saying and responding to their concerns and their worries.
WILENIUS: This is a big problem,
as many Labour backbenchers feel they have no forum where they can let
their worries and concerns come out. According to one Labour MP the government
is feeding resentment by taking them for granted.
DAVIDSON: There's a feeling in
amongst the backbenchers that the mushroom principle is operating, that
we're just being kept in the dark, the door gets open, things get flung
in on top of us and we're expected just loyally to respond and I think
people feel more and more uneasy about some of the decisions that are being
WILENIUS: Labour leaders may have
to follow the activities of many more of their own MPs in future. The Centre
Left Tribune Group which used to represent a large section of the party
is about to make a comeback, after an absence of two years. The aim of
the group is to deliver a strong message to the leadership on key issues
they really care about.
DAVIDSON: Quite a number of backbenchers
have been saying that we need to have some opportunity for discussion and
debate and they've been asking myself as one of the former officers to
resurrect the Tribune Group. We'll have various meeting after we come back
from a break without having to make decisions but just to air views, to
express concerns, to sound out each other, just to see whether or not there
are shared views and if a consensus emerges that's expressing concern,
then obviously we want to reflect that back to the leadership.
CLIVE SOLEY: Although we all want to open
up the debate a bit, and I know both the Prime Minister and a number of
Members of Cabinet want more open debate, that has to be balanced by a
sense of discipline, because if we don't do that, if the government isn't
seen to give to the backbenchers and to the party and if the backbenchers
don't also respect the difficulty of the government getting you know, seeing
to be blowing in the wind, then frankly we end up in opposition again.
WILENIUS: Although the prospect
of a direct challenge to Tony Blair appears remote at the moment, for the
first time there are dark mutterings about his leadership. A respected
Labour backbencher told me Blair's lost the plot, and a once loyal former
Minister wants Gordon Brown to replace him before the next election. Prime
Ministers ignore this sort of whispering at their peril, because it could
develop into something much more dangerous.
LLOYD: What we need is a Tony Blair
who demonstrates that he does care about the message that's coming back
and he is prepared to act on that message. When it went wrong with Mrs
Thatcher. When it went wrong with John Major was when they said not only
do we not listen, it's when they said we don't need to listen because we
know better and we can never afford to have a government that says, we
DAVIDSON: The danger of isolation
for Number Ten and the people in there, is that they start operating in
a sort of parallel universe, which is partly constructed themselves, but
partly constructed by the things that they spin out in to the press, and
which they then read, and then reinforces their impressions and that they
find themselves going down a track which nobody else is following, and
that they run the risk of cutting away their own support in Parliament
and in the country by following policies that people are not happy with.
LLOYD: Tony Blair will not be Prime
Minister for ever, no doubt he is considering what his future will be but
I don't think he's likely to go by the end of the week.
WILENIUS: The big question is -
will Tony Blair listen to the messages coming from his own troops? Although
there's little prospect of a direct challenge, the numbers ready to question
his leadership are growing. Blair's strength is that he's the political
alchemist, the magician that won two stunning election victories. His weakness
is that more Labour MPs are wondering what those victories were for.