Menacing threats for MPs as Labour seeks party unity

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The Independent Online
Labour MPs are facing menacing threats, deception, and inducement as part of the party's determined effort to maintain a facade of disciplined unity.

Anthony Bevins, Political Editor, reports on the remorseless crackdown against dissidents.

Some of Labour's new MPs are known as the "Stepford Wives", because they remind older colleagues of the tame housewives in the vintage American film who received regular doses of brainwashing to keep them mindlessly docile.

But the whips' machine is now beginning to exert a more sinister and totalitarian pressure on MPs who attempt to voice an individual opinion, challenging the Government line. In the curious jargon of the spin doctors, it is known as "going off message".

One of the first signs of "New Labour, New Discipline" emerged in the Commons on 6 November, when two strong-minded backbenchers, Alice Mahon and Alan Meale, quietly withdrew their names from a Commons motion criticising the Government's plans to cut lone parent child benefit.

Alice Mahon is parliamentary private secretary (PPS) to Chris Smith, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport; Mr Meale is John Prescott's PPS.

After they signed the motion, all PPSs are said to have received a letter telling them that they are forthwith barred from signing motions. The menacing threat is that they either toe the line, or lose their unpaid posts as ministerial aides.

Under previous governments, PPSs could not criticise the particular departments to which they were assigned, or vote against the Government, but they were allowed views on other departmental issues and policy - even critical views. That is now banned.

Deception was used this week in an attempt to muzzle Robert Marshall- Andrews QC, the Labour MP for Medway who has put down a backbench motion criticising the management of the controversial Millennium Dome project.

In an apparent attempt to defuse his criticism, the MP was invited by Peter Mandelson, Minister for the Dome, to attend a Commons meeting with Jenny Page, chief executive of NMEC, the project's management company.

Given his known criticism of the lack of accountability of the company, with MPs being refused access to accounts and contracts, Mr Marshall-Andrews was told he could ask questions at the meeting. The MP's Commons questions to Mr Mandelson have not been very fruitful and he hoped for some answers from Ms Page.

Instead, he was told by Margaret Hodge, the MP chairing the meeting, that it had been arranged by the London group of Labour MPs, and because he was not a London MP, he was told that he could not only not ask questions - but he was ordered to leave the room.

The whips' use of inducement and inducement is more traditional, but has become endemic. David Rendel, Liberal Democrat spokesman on social security, yesterday noted that eight Labour MPs had so far withdrawn their names from the lone parents benefit motion.

Mr Rendel said: "It now seems that personal U-turn sessions with Mr Blair have been added to the list of ways New Labour intends to stop them expressing their own views."

Jim Fitzpatrick, MP for Poplar and Canning Town, and Phil Sawford, of Kettering, who are among the eight, told The Independent that they had been urged to make their protest in private, rather than by showing public disunity and disloyalty: the blackmail stroke.

Other blackmail includes implied threats that MPs might not get future preferment for places on cherished select committees - in the gift of the whips.

A measure of the current climate of fear has been provided by a recent recruitment letter from Ian Davidson, secretary of the Tribune Group of Labour MPs, who says, only half in jest: "I have checked with the Chief Whip's office and membership will not blight your career.

``After all, we are not the [more Left-wing] Campaign Group!"