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U.K.: Dissent Grows In Labour Party Over Iraq, Afghanistan

  • Kathleen Moore

In the mid-1990s, Tony Blair modernized Britain's Labour Party and led it back into power after nearly two decades in opposition. One of the keys to "New Labour's" success was to ditch old left-wing ideas and move towards the political center ground. But now there are signs of growing disquiet in the party, especially among the so-called "Old Labour" faction. Those party members think Blair is too close to right-wing politicians abroad -- particularly U.S. President George W. Bush and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Trade unions -- traditionally strong Labour allies -- have criticized Blair for supporting curbs on workers' rights. But most of all there is unease about the bellicose tone of recent government statements toward Iraq, and many Labour members of parliament are now urging Blair not to support the U.S. if it extends its war on terror to Baghdad. Does this all amount to a rift in the Labour Party, or even set the stage for a leadership challenge?

Prague, 27 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- British Prime Minister Tony Blair may be feeling relieved that parliament is now in recess for the Easter holidays.

It's been a tough few months on the domestic front for Blair, with chaos on the railways, a sharp rise in street crime and bad press over the state of the country's public-funded health service. A row at the Transport Ministry fueled fears that party political advisers were encroaching on territory belonging to impartial civil servants. And there was "Steelgate," where Blair supported Romania's sale of its Sidex steelworks to an Indian businessman who also happened to be a big Labour donor.

Now it's Blair's own parliament members and traditional allies who are showing signs of unrest. They're unhappy that Blair is close with right-of-center politicians abroad, particularly U.S. President George W. Bush and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Blair and Berlusconi are pushing for an overhaul of European Union labor laws, which opponents see as a curb on workers' rights. John Monks, the leader of Britain's Trade Union Congress, called Blair's move "bloody stupid."

Further evidence of the left-wingers' weakening support for Blair came this week, when some members of the party's National Executive Committee said they wanted to debate a halt to private-sector involvement in public services.

But the critics' main bone of contention is Blair's bellicose tone toward Iraq and British military involvement in Afghanistan, says Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn is one of more than 120 members of Parliament -- most of them from the Labour Party -- to sign a parliamentary motion this month urging Blair not to support the U.S. if it extends its war on terror to Iraq.

"The main concern of most Labour [members of parliament] is the completely uncritical support Tony Blair is giving to George Bush and the involvement of British troops in Afghanistan, and -- to a greater extent -- his preparedness apparently to join in a new bombing campaign in Iraq. We feel that we should be having a more independent foreign policy and also should give the United Nations an opportunity to work out some longer-term peace proposal."

Corbyn says what worries the dissenters about Afghanistan is that there's "no visible end" to the campaign. They fret that Britain could get dragged into a long-running war, just like the Soviets in the 1980s and the British in the 19th century.

To be sure, ever since Blair pledged full support for the U.S. antiterror campaign there have been some who voiced opposition. But the difference now is that it's not just the usual suspects -- such as George Galloway, a maverick member of parliament and an outspoken critic of Britain's policy on Iraq. Former ministers have gone public with their reservations, too. And some senior figures still in the Cabinet have expressed unease. Clare Short, the international development secretary, said any action against Iraq would be "very unwise." And Home Secretary David Blunkett was quoted as warning colleagues that military action could provoke "major disturbances" in Britain.

Again, parliament member Jeremy Corbyn: "Over 120 [members of parliament], mostly Labour, have signed a parliamentary motion against the British involvement in the bombing of Iraq -- that is over half of the parliamentary Labour Party that are not already members of the government, and so that is a huge number, far more than on any other subject. There is clearly a disagreement within the parliamentary Labour Party and indeed the Labour Party as a whole about this, and Tony Blair would do well to listen."

There are signs that the public is beginning to share these misgivings. A survey in "The Guardian" newspaper last week showed a majority did not support action against Iraq. And another poll over the weekend showed Labour's lead over the Conservatives has halved to just 9 percent.

To make matters worse, there is now talk of a "stalking horse" leadership challenge against Blair -- where a weak candidate would try not to win but to test sentiment within the party. Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher famously won her own "stalking horse" contest in 1989 -- only to be ousted as leader a year later.

Paul Webb is professor of politics at Britain's Sussex University. He says the unrest stands out when compared with what he calls the "abnormal" discipline of Labour's first term. Then, the argument goes, it was relatively easy to discipline members of parliament who were grateful for an election victory after 18 years in the political wilderness.

Perhaps worryingly for Blair, Webb says that Labour's track record shows a potential for loose policy tendencies to form factions -- like the hard-left Militant Tendency that finally broke from the party in the early 1990s. He says Labour may be about to enter a new phase of intraparty factionalism after a long period of unity.

But political obituary writers shouldn't sharpen their pencils just yet. Webb says party rules make it difficult to stage a leadership contest. More than 80 members of parliament would have to sign nomination papers to even trigger a challenge in Labour's electoral college, which divides votes between members of the British Parliament, members of the European Parliament, unions, and party members.

Another sticking point is the potential shortage of serious potential candidates. The obvious choice is Gordon Brown, Blair's chancellor and former rival for the party leadership in 1994. But if Blair is lacking in the left-wing credentials held dear by the Labour dissenters, Brown is hardly a tax-and-spend champion of socialist ideals either. During his first years in office he kept a tight hold on the public purse, earning him the nickname "Iron Chancellor."

On another reassuring note for Blair, Webb says the Labour Party is traditionally far more loyal to its leaders than the Conservatives -- even if its members do grumble: "You've only got to look at the example of Margaret Thatcher to see what I'm talking about, because it's hard to imagine a more securely rooted, powerful, presidential-style Tory leader than Thatcher was in the mid-'80s. And yet by 1990, at the first signs that she might be becoming an electoral liability rather than an asset to the party, they ditched her very quickly."

He continues: "Blair is still relatively strong. His opinion poll ratings have gone down somewhat, but compared to almost every other British prime minister over the last 30 or 40 years, they're still pretty strong, to be honest."

Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott voiced support for Blair today, saying the prime minister's critics have "legitimate concerns" but adding that there will be no leadership challenge.

Over the weekend Blair shrugged off his troubles in an interview with "The Sunday Mirror," saying, "If I had a pound for every time someone said the honeymoon is over I would be a rich man."

Asked about speculation he may be replaced, he responded: "It is not for the first time. People have always attacked me and that is part of politics. I am grown up and I can take it. It is just the usual stuff you get. It is of no real significance at all."

The U.S. has yet to decide what action to take if Iraq does not comply with UN Security Council resolutions on weapons inspections. Depending on what that decision is, Blair may find out if the attacks from within his ranks this time are of "real significance" to the party -- and his government.