Blair battered by rising tide of rebellion from back benches

Tony Blair seems to have constant trouble getting his way these days with Labour backbenchers. With all the appeals to the consciences of wayward MPs, late-night arm-twisting by the whips, close votes in the Commons and embarrassing headlines about splits and near-defeats, this governing party has the appearance of one of the most fractious in history.

It is an appearance born out of reality. A study by academics at the University of Nottingham has found that Mr Blair's present administration is the most rebelled-against of all post-1945 administrations. A small group of persistent left wingers has voted against the Government on more than half the issues to dog Mr Blair, the research, by Professor Philip Cowley and Dr Mark Stuart, found.

To compound his problem single-issue dissenters have swelled the ranks of the rebels in one in every five votes since 2001, and nearly 130 MPs have voted against the whips on at least two important issues.

In total, 197 Labour MPs have been involved in 141 separate rebellions since the general election. A hard core of 30 has cast its votes against the Prime Minister on more than half the contentious issues facing the Government.

Now Mr Blair faces one of his most difficult parliamentary sessions, with 157 Labour MPs opposed to university top-up fees, and internal discontent looming over asylum policy, House of Lords reform and fox hunting.

Labour backbenchers from across the party warn that they are losing patience with Mr Blair's repeated "back me or sack me" ultimatums to his party and say they are not prepared to accept policies imposed by Downing Street. Jeremy Corbyn, the left-wing Islington MP, is the most prolific of the rebels, voting against the Government 87 times since 2001. Five MPs have rebelled more than 50 times.

Tam Dalyell, the father of the House and 25th most rebellious Labour backbencher, defied the whip just 22 times. But there are nearly 200 single-issue and occasional rebels who helped swell the 141 rebellions against Mr Blair since the general election.

Professor Cowley said: "The good news for the Government is that although there are lots of MPs who are willing to rebel against it, it does not yet face large-scale factional opposition on the back benches. The flip side of this is that when it gets into trouble with its backbenchers, it cannot simply dismiss its problems as the result of behaviour of the usual suspects, because there just aren't enough to cause it trouble.

"The hard core is remarkably small and can be dismissed because when they vote against the Government there is no surprise. The problem for the Government is that rebellion is much much wider than those people. This 'back me or sack me' thing is a problematic strategy. Making every vote as if it is a proxy vote of confidence is difficult because one day the rebels will call his bluff."

Professor Cowley's research is based on the 11 most controversial issues on the back benches, ranging from the war in Iraq and foundation hospitals to limits on trial by jury and the expansion of faith schools.

It shows that even vociferous critics of Mr Blair are unlikely to defy the whips in the division lobbies. Peter Kilfoyle, the outspoken former defence minister, rebelled over just five issues, and Mr Dalyell defied the whips on just three issues.

Mr Corbyn said: "When I was reselected last year every branch and union voted for me, a 100 per cent result. There can't be that much opposition."

Alan Simpson, convener of the Campaign Group of MPs and the sixth most-frequent rebel, said: "The loyalty card has been played out over Iraq and foundation hospitals. I think people will take a quite different view over top-up fees. Lots of the middle ground are saying loyalty is a two-way street and it's one thing to talk about loyalty of the Parliamentary Labour Party to the leader; there are equal issues about loyalty to the party.

"Even the most rebellious of people will have voted for the Government way more often than they ever dreamt of rebelling. On a lot of these issues you have to bite your tongue and get through the lobbies. There are lots of times you might think this has not been properly thought out or it's an issue you are opposed to, but some things are unsupportable or stupid, or both."

Graham Allen, Labour MP for Nottingham North, and author of a book on Mr Blair's presidential style, said: "Tony Blair has a bright idea and it's thrown fully formed to the PLP who are just meant to vote for it. People want a signal that No 10 and the Prime Minister have learnt from the awful experience of foundation hospitals and university fees."

Siz most rebellious Labour MPs, 2001-2003

Jeremy Corbyn: rebelled 87 times since 2001

A long-standing left-wing campaigner who has championed a wide range of radical causes.

The 54-year-old MP for Islington North, who has held the seat since 1983, has been a persistent thorn in the side of the Labour leadership on issues from Northern Ireland to Iraq.

He separated from his wife, Claudia, after she chose to send their son to a high-performing grammar school instead of their local comprehensive. Mr Corbyn, now one of the 14 MPs backed by the hard-left RMT rail union, is an instantly recognisable figure on the Labour back benches, with his trademark beard and colourful sports jackets.

The former full-time union official is a leading figure in the Stop the War coalition, which organised massive demonstrations against the war in Iraq.

John McDonnell: rebelled 79 times since 2001.

A former left-wing member of the Greater London Council, he became a senior local government and trade union official before being elected MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997.

Mr McDonnell served as the GLC deputy leader from 1984 to 1985 under Ken Livingstone.

Now chairman of the left-wing Campaign Group of MPs, he was one of five Labour MPs to rebel over council tax capping within weeks of Labour coming to power.

Lynne Jones: rebelled 57 times since 2001

MP for Birmingham Selly Oak since 1992, she has a doctorate in biochemistry and was a research fellow at the University of Birmingham.

Ms Jones, 52, was chairman of Birmingham City Council's housing committee from 1984 to 1987 and still retains an interest in housing issues. A member of the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs, she has campaigned vigorously on pensions policy and championed the cause of university staff.

Brian Sedgemore: rebelled 53 times since 2001.

Veteran MP for Hackney South and Shoreditch, who was a parliamentary aide to Tony Benn when he was Secretary of State for Energy in the 1970s. He served as MP for Luton West between 1974 and 1979 before gaining his current seat in 1983.

Mr Sedgemore, 72, is a barrister and the author of several books. Said in a recent debate: "Most of us can agree we have the worst Home Secretary for the past 100 years."

Robert Marshall-Andrews: rebelled 51 times since 2001.

A distinguished QC and part-time judge who won the Medway constituency in 1997 and has become a persistent and vocal Labour critic of Tony Blair's government. Another member of the Socialist Campaign Group. As a lawyer, Mr Marshall-Andrews was a leader of backbench opposition to proposals to limit the right to trial by jury. He has also been bitterly critical of reform of the historic post of Lord Chancellor.

Alan Simpson: rebelled 48 times since 2001.

Secretary of the Campaign Group of Labour MPs and a vocal critic of the war in Iraq. Mr Simpson has been the MP for Nottingham South since 1992 and played a leading role in the anti-war campaign during the build-up to military action against Iraq.

He printed alternative Labour membership applications, encouraging prospective members to make clear their opposition to war when they applied for their party cards.

Mr Simpson has been prominent in his opposition to foundation hospitals and university top-up fees, and has criticised Tony Blair's top-down style of policy making.

But like many rebels, he rejects the "usual suspects" tag, insisting that he makes his decisions on the merits of individual political issues.

. . . THE OTHER REBELS AND HOW OFTEN THEY HAVE DEFIED THE WHIP

  • Harry Barnes 47
  • Kelvin Hopkins 47
  • Robert Wareing 47
  • Dennis Skinner 43
  • Neil Gerrard 40
  • Denzil Davies 38
  • Andrew Bennett 37
  • Alice Mahon 37
  • Diane Abbott 36
  • Jim Marshall 32
  • Mark Fisher 31
  • Llew Smith 29
  • Kevin McNamara 28
  • George Galloway* 27
  • Mike Wood 25
  • Kate Hoey 24
  • Glenda Jackson 24
  • Terry Lewis 24
  • Tam Dalyell 22

Note: * Includes only votes cast while in receipt of the party whip. Mr Galloway has cast only one vote - with or against the government - since his suspension from the PLP on 6 May, 2003 (and subsequent expulsion on 23 October), and that was to participate in the anti-foundation hospitals vote on 19 November.

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