Politics: MPs sign protest letters - but are they rebels?

Labour backbenchers show signs of restlessness
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The Independent Online
More than 80 Labour MPs have signed a private protest about the conduct of Diane Abbott and Ken Livingstone. With 100 MPs opposing the lone-parent child benefit cut in a confidential letter, Anthony Bevins, Political Editor, looks at Labour's `new protest'.

The Prime Minister and Labour Party managers have decided to take no further action against Diane Abbott and Ken Livingstone for their public protest over the party's acceptance of a pounds 1m donation from Formula One's Bernie Ecclestone.

Following criticism by Tony Blair's Labour national executive of the two MPs for broadcasting their protest, the issue was again raised at a Wednesday evening meeting of the parliamentary committee when it was revealed that 84 MPs had signed a protest letter about their colleagues' behaviour.

Led by Phyllis Starkey, the new MP for Milton Keynes South West, the letter condemned the dissident MPs' conduct as "destructive", and alleged that they had "impugned ministers' motives" in defending acceptance of the donation. They said Ms Abbott and Mr Livingstone's criticism had been "particularly unfortunate", given that it contradicted Mr Blair's defence of the leadership stance at a private meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party from which the two dissidents were absent.

One Labour MP who has seen the Starkey letter said last night that it had been signed by the "Stepford Wives and Millbank Men"; MPs who, allegedly, slavishly follow the leadership in all things. "I hold no brief for Abbott and Livingstone," the MP said, "but this letter can only be interpreted as an invitation to chuck them out of the Parliamentary Labour Party. As such, it is an insult to parliamentary democracy and the rights of MPs to exercise conscience on matters of public importance."

It is understood that other (legible) signatories include Melanie Johnson, Welwyn Hatfield; Christine McCafferty, Calder Valley; Valerie Davey, Bristol West; Betty Williams, Conwy; Andrew Dismore, Hendon; and Syd Rapson, Portsmouth North.

Following whips' pressure on Labour MPs to pull their names off a public Commons motion that criticises Government plans to cut lone-parent child benefit, it was revealed yesterday that 100 MPs had signed a more discreet protest letter, allegedly organised by Chris Mullin, MP for Sunderland South, to Gordon Brown, Chancellor of the Exchequer.

However, the fact that the MPs have been unwilling to make a public stand suggests that they are very unlikely to press their hostility to a vote against the Government.

The original Commons motion, sponsored by Audrey Wise, Labour MP for Preston, was signed by another 18 MPs on Wednesday, but only half of them were Labour and yet another Labour MP, Midlothian's Eric Clarke, removed his name.

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