The Prime Minister issued a stern warning as he reacted to last week's rebellion by 80 Labour MPs against the Government's controversial plans to means-test benefits for the disabled. He said the revolt would not deflect him from his radical welfare reforms.
"MPs have got to realise they're not just a pressure group to pass concerns on to Government," Mr Blair told a meeting of Labour's National Executive Committee. "They're also ambassadors for the Government, going out to people, reaching them, explaining to them."
He added: "People in the party have got to get used to the idea of their Government saying `no' - we have got to say `no' to people."
He warned his party that if it appeared divided on welfare reform, the Tories would seize the initiative and start proposing radical and unacceptable changes to the system.
Mr Blair said he wanted his welfare shake-up worked out before the next general election, even though some of the changes might be implemented later. The reforms would enable Labour to spend more money on health, education and the New Deal for the jobless.
His speech was received coolly by the rebels at Westminster last night. "It's about time that people at the top started to listen to us, rather than the other way round," one Labour MP said.
Mr Blair's determination to ride out the storm over disability benefits was reinforced by Alistair Darling, the Secretary of State for Social Security, who ruled out any immediate concessions to the rebels.
Privately, Mr Darling is resigned to defeat in the House of Lords over his Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill. This may force him to make some concessions to anable him to persuade Labour MPs to overturn the defeat when the Bill returns to the Commons. Mr Darling told a meeting in Manchester yesterday: "Everyone is in favour of welfare reform until you get to the specific decisions. In the short-term, it is easy to duck difficult decisions. But that is a long-term recipe for drift and decay."
But the Government's welfare changes came under attack when Baroness Castle of Blackburn, the veteran former cabinet minister, rounded on its plans for ``stakeholder'' pensions. ``Society will be split down the middle between the economic failures who have to be bailed out in their old age by means-tested charity and those who are strong enough to stand on their own two feet," she said in a pamphlet.
Lady Castle said Mr Darling's proposals would deprive pensioners of choice by destroying the state insurance schemes.
n Mr Blair welcomed Labour's performance in this month's local elections, and blamed party organisation rather than policies in the areas where Labour did badly. The NEC meeting was told that Labour would review its structure to devolve more power to its Scottish and Welsh parties in response to the creation of the Parliament in Edinburgh and Assembly in Cardiff.Reuse content