BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 24.03.02

Film: LABOUR FILM. Paul Wilenius looks at the growing ease among Labour MPs at the direction of the Government.

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 for change. 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 and concern. 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 divisions 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 taken. 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 know better. 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.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.