Gwyneth Dunwoody: Stop spinning, end the feuding and start listening to your party

'The talk about stalking horses and leadership challenges is eyewash, but that may not last forever'
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Yesterday, I received a letter from a Labour supporter about Railtrack. It made for depressing reading. My correspondent told me that he and his wife had voted and supported Labour since the days of Harold Wilson, but that the Government's decision to compensate Railtrack shareholders was just too much to take, a step too far. They would not be supporting us again and they wanted to tell someone that.

This is not the only letter that I and other Labour MPs have received in this vein. Of course this is not a scientific method of appraising public opinion, and the polls still show an impressive Labour lead of nearly 10 points. But I do think that some of our support is rather shallow and that some of our electoral success is down to the Tories' enduring unpopularity and unattractiveness. That may not last forever, and we cannot as a party bank on it being permanent feature of life. The thing is that we can do something about the difficulties we have been getting into.

There is something very wrong with the way this Government is run. Sorting this out has to be a priority. We simply cannot go on as we have been doing over the past six months, limping along from crisis to crisis as if we were a minority government rather than one with another landslide majority. From where I'm sitting, there seem to be two big problems.

First, too much power is centralised in No 10. The various units there (performance and innovation, forward strategy, strategic communications, policy and the rest) wield to much power. It is wrong, and alien to our democratic traditions, that they should be more important than whole departments of state. It means that policy-making is concentrated in far too few hands. It is profoundly undemocratic.

The special advisers and officials who work in No 10 are not elected and are not accountable to Parliament; ministers are. I am the chairman of the Commons Select Committee on Transport, and I am pretty clear that the decisions that matter on transport policy are taken in Downing Street, at No 10 and No 11, and that brings me to my next point.

We have had powerful Chancellors of the Exchequer in the past, but none has had the grand ambitions of the present incumbent. Its worrying that Mr Blair seems to want to be president. Mr Brown's role is not so much as a counterweight to Mr Blair but more a competitor.

Everything now seems to be conducted on the basis of "bilaterals". It would be bad if there were just one set of these – between No 10 and the various ministries. But Cabinet ministers have also to contend with the sometimes conflicting imperatives of the Treasury. Of course, as we saw this week with the Railtrack compensation, the Treasury and No 10 often run away at the first sign of trouble and leave ministers to defend policies that they have not been responsible for and don't even agree with.

The result is confusion about policy, lack of purpose, competitive briefings by the spin doctors, and all too often the Government failing to get the recognition for the real progress that it is making. I might as well add that, as usual, a Sunday newspaper was told about the Railtrack compensation before Labour MPs were, adding insult to injury.

You don't have to be a great constitutional expert to see what the answer to all this is, but you may have to have a long memory. We need to go back to something like the old methods and conventions of cabinet government. That doesn't mean that all issues should be discussed by the full Cabinet, but surely the most important ones ought to be? The system of cabinet committees seems to have withered away.

The Commons may be inadequate. Its procedures may not be exactly what we want. From time to time, it may hold debates or behave in a way that others think is unacceptable, juvenile or even – dare I say it? – verbose and boring, but the reality is that Parliament is the only safeguard that we have against an over-mighty executive, who can push through decisions and decide that what is important to them is not necessarily important enough to be debated.

It made me feel very uneasy to hear the defence secretary, Geoff Hoon, admit to the Commons that there hadn't been a full cabinet discussion about sending more British troops to Afghanistan. It hardly needs saying that there was no consultation with Labour MPs either. No wonder backbenchers are fed up. The weekly meetings of the Parliamentary Labour Party are not an adequate forum for debate. This cannot go on. There is a danger, as we start to contemplate military action in Iraq, of a real disaffection in the Labour Party. At the moment the talk about stalking horses and leadership challenges is eyewash; but that may not last forever.

The patience of Labour MPs would be tested beyond breaking point if we automatically agreed to join an American military operation in Iraq. This is what I mean by consultation; showing Labour MPs the evidence that proves Saddam Hussein is a threat to us. We know that he has poison gas and other weapons, but is he going to use them against us? Does he have the means to deliver them? Has the work of the UN been exhausted?

We have not, as Labour MPs, received adequate answers to these questions, and the Government cannot expect automatic support unless and until we have seen the evidence that addresses those doubts. "Trust me," Mr Blair says; we will, but in return we want to be consulted.

It is not often that I find myself agreeing with Peter Mandelson, but I notice that he said at the weekend that the age of spin should end (a bit rich coming from him), and that the Government needs to be more direct, more convincing and more honest. That is right; and the sensible thing to do now is for Mr Blair and Mr Brown to stop their feuding and bring the Cabinet and the House of Commons and the Labour Party out of the cold and back into decision-making.

The work of this government is more important than anyone's ego. Mr Blair is right to say that we should avoid splits because the only people they will help are the Tories; but he has a part to play too. You cannot micro-manage everything. Listen to your MPs, Mr Blair, before its too late.

info@gwynethdunwoody.co.uk

The writer is the Labour MP for Crewe and Nantwich and chairman of the Commons Select Committee on Transport

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