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The old Left: rebels without cause or hope

By Corin McCarthy - posted Friday, 25 November 2005

The Tories and the Left want Tony Blair to go for very different reasons. They can't both be correct. The Left are so angered by Blair they are in danger of imperilling their government's reform program.

A week after losing a Commons vote on 90-day detention of terror suspects, an unprecedented 89 rebel Labour MPs have declared they will defy the government on reform of the National Health Service and schools. The rebels do not care about popularity, or loyalty - they want Blair's resignation.

Peter Kilfoyle, a senior rebel, said: "A lot of MPs came to me and said they would go with the government on terror but would not do so when it came to contentious issues on education and health." The contentious points are Blair’s commitment to private sector involvement in running public services, greater consumer choice in service delivery and the decentralisation of authority to operational level.


Many Labour MPs believe "choice" is designed to promote access for middle class children into the better schools, at the expense of funding of poor performing schools. Blair’s charm offensive of rebels is unlikely to resolve this issue as it has done in the past.

Tony Blair faces real risk and reward politics. Will he split his party to secure a long-term legacy?

For most in the Labour Party, it’s an unwanted risk but one it will confront: according to Blair, the next election rides on it. He is adamant that if the government does not deliver a popular reform program, Labour will lose the next election.

Blair is facing Labour's most difficult dilemma head on. He asks of the Labour Party: If you don't want my leadership - with all the reforms pledged in the manifesto - then look elsewhere for a leader. Blair says, "It is better to lose sometimes doing the right thing than to win doing the wrong thing."

Blair has led for 11 years with one approach - from the front, confronting, challenging and chivvying the Labour Party into backing him. But with 89 Labour MPs voting against him, the heavy dents to his authority could be irreparable.

The rebels, sensing blood, have organised into a sophisticated operation that includes whips that can accurately predict how many backbenchers will defy the government on specific issues. These backbench MPs are in no mood to compromise either.


The state of the Labour Party is a double-edged sword for Chancellor Gordon Brown. He argues that Labour must listen, learn and connect with voters and says, "The renewal of New Labour is as big a challenge as the creation of New Labour".

Brown is worried that the reform agenda may be derailed, that he could be blamed and that he would inherit the leadership during a Labour civil war. Brown is playing safe politics for now, assuming a conciliatory stance, but not arguing for watering down of the reforms.

As he often does, Blair asks as many questions of the Tories as he does of the rebels on public sector reform.

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About the Author

Corin McCarthy was an adviser in opposition and government to Craig Emerson MP. He also advised Labor’s 2007 election campaign on small business issues. He has written widely on these issues in The Australian and On Line Opinion. He currently works as a lawyer in London advising on major infrastructure projects. These views are his own.

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