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9 May 2005

Blame them, not Blair

Barbara Gunnell on Labour's backbenchers

By Barbara Gunnell

He’s back, if not for long. But let’s make a resolution now. Let’s stop blaming Tony Blair. OK, it’s a tradition. We’re as used to the “Bliar!” taunt as to John Major’s underpants. But it really isn’t very grown-up to keep pretending one man alone is responsible for the Iraq war and the entire perceived ills of the country.

However much blame attaches to Blair for the execution of the war, one group has emerged undeservedly unscathed from the wretched legacy of two Blair-led governments – Labour backbenchers.

From the outset, in the post-1997 “things can only get better” euphoria, they have been spineless, immoral and careless of their responsibilities to their constituents. True, there have been rebellions, some effective in terms of press coverage. Yet Blair remains the only prime minister since 1966 to remain undefeated on whipped votes. Certainly, and this is backed by research from the University of Nottingham, backbenchers became increasingly rebellious as the years went on. Of the 2001 intake of 40 new Labour MPs, 23 had already rebelled by March last year. But at the outset, far too many backbenchers made it clear they would vote as dictated. They made a virtue of it.

A few complained the whips would mark their card and that

to do good in the future they had to be parsimonious with their support for “old Labour” issues such as civil liberties or legal probity. Yet this was a government, in 1997, with an overall majority of 179 in which the only control on the new cabinet’s overweening power would be its backbenchers.

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They failed. All through repeated rebellions on issues as diverse as Lords reform, fox-hunting, tuition fees, control orders and, lamentably, the war, they failed to stick to their guns. While the first anti-war rebellion in 2003 brought out 139 rebels, by the time of the Butler report last August, when parliament could have delivered a decisive verdict, only 41 Labour rebels turned out. For some reason, 100 Labour MPs were away from the House that day.

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It is shameful that when street protests of more than a million displayed public abhorrence for war, it was left to Menzies Campbell of the Lib Dems to undertake the weekly forensic analysis of the flaws in government statements.

We have a new parliament in a direct representative system which is justified on the basis that parliamentarians answer to you. What’s your MP up to? Will he or she represent you, or sit tight and wait for a junior government position?

Tony Blair will soon be gone. Who will we blame then?

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