No Labour government can thrive on the demand for absolute loyalty from its MPs

Over the last few days there's been an unhealthy competition in proposing forms of punishment for Clare Short
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The Independent Online

It is impossible to comprehend the demands from within the Labour Party for retribution against Clare Short without remembering where we are in the parliamentary calendar. We are probably almost exactly a year away from the date when Tony Blair visits Buckingham Palace to recommend a general election. It would be an eccentric Labour MP who did not recognise that for the next year their duty to prevent Britain falling into the hands of a Tory government takes precedence over all else.

Those of us with differences of opinion with policies of the Government, such as Iraq, need to find a tone of expression for our genuine disagreements which does not bring into question the legitimacy of the present Labour government or the desirability of electing a further one.

That is why Clare's latest intervention has been more successful than any appeal for loyalty from Tony Blair in provoking greater unity within the Labour Party than at any time since the invasion of Iraq. Over the last few days there has been an unhealthy competition in proposing forms of condign punishment for Clare that would adequately convey party outrage.

Unity is an admirable quality, but it becomes highly unattractive when it is expressed by the pursuit of dissent. Ian McCartney, the Chair of the Labour Party, spoke with typical robust common sense when he pointed out it would not help anyone to transform Clare into a martyr. The public may not approve of what Clare did, but equally it does not like freedom of expression being snuffed out by party discipline.

This public perspective should be remembered in the wider debate over dissent in the Labour Party and rebellion in the voting lobbies which has been stimulated by the latest controversy. I have not voted against the Government since the motion on the Iraq war, but then as a former Cabinet Minister I am necessarily more understanding of the problems of my colleagues in government, and more reluctant to add to them. The whole point of Parliament is to provide a crucible in which proposals of government can be analysed and tested in the public interest. The Commons simply cannot do its job if party loyalty is the only criterion by which its members are to be judged.

I am a veteran of the 1974 Parliament, in which votes could turn on half a dozen swing members. The 30-year anniversary of its election has just passed with total media silence on the occasion. This is unfair, as no post-war government has had to wrestle with such a malign conjunction of hostile pressures. The Wilson-Callaghan government had to cope with the aftershock of a fourfold price hike in oil, inflation and consequent union unrest, and a sustained mainland bombing campaign by the IRA. The causes célèbres of the present administration such as the Bernie Eccleston donation or the Hinduja passport would not have rated a footnote in the legions of troubles that assailed that government.

Instead of Tony Blair's record majority, Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan had no majority at all for most of the time. And yet they faced repeated rebellions on the backbenches from a Tribune Group that had almost as strong a sense of corporate identity as the Parliamentary Labour Party. It was the best of times in that the Commons enjoyed a period in which it was the cockpit where there was a real struggle over which way major decisions might go. It was the worst of times in that the divisions in the Labour Party nurtured the electoral weakness that put us into Opposition for the next two decades.

No one who lived through that era would deny that the desirable independence of mind of each back-bencher needs to be tempered with a respectable unity of the party as a collective. But there is a parallel here to Tony Blair's favourite aphorism that rights must be matched by responsibilities. Loyalty of the back-benchers must be matched by solidarity of the leadership. If Labour is to get through the pre-election year in the necessary spirit of unity, Number 10 also has a job to do that is more than lectures on the estimable qualities of loyalty.

Iraq is first on the list, as it has become the defining issue of this Parliament. Warnings against an unholy alliance between Labour rebels and the Tory party ring hollow for those of us who remember that the vote for war was carried by an alliance of the Labour government and the Tory front bench. There are still some on-message ministers left who will defend the invasion of Iraq as the correct policy. There are none left who will not admit that it has been a first-class, technicolour political disaster for Labour, and has obscured the many positive, progressive achievements of this government on health, education, jobs and poverty.

John Kerry's magnificent assault on Bush's unilateralist foreign policy on Tuesday guarantees that the controversy will continue into the autumn. If Kerry then wins, as everyone else in the Labour party prays, it will be an explicit rejection of Bush's policy on Iraq and an implicit rejection of Blair's.

If Tony Blair wants to put the divisions over Iraq behind him, he needs to do more than urge his critics to shut up. He needs to find a way to distance himself from the political fallout. A painless starting point would be to restate his support for the multilateralism represented by Kerry, and to repudiate the unilateralism of Bush.

The next priority is to build bridges to the half of Labour's back-benchers who have found themselves at odds with their government over the past year on Iraq, foundation hospitals or tuition fees. One reason why Wilson and Callaghan survived the balancing act required of them in the Seventies was they built a front bench that reflected back-bench opinion. Albert Booth was a pillar of the Seventies Cabinet, but had been given a union award in the Sixties as the MP who had rebelled most often.

Today every back-bencher believes that the party line is the road to promotion and rebellion is a ticket to Siberia. This is bad for government, as it deprives it of the services of many able back-benchers who would make good ministers, but it is also bad for the party as it leaves a large chunk of back-benchers believing they have no future under present management.

The last task is the most important. Tony has made a lifetime career out of identifying New Labour as Not The Labour Party. This worked a treat in the right-wing press, who were happy to write him up as tough because he stood up to his own party. But whenever he plays that card now, the storyline is not that he is strong but that Labour is weak and divided.

Tony Blair has an excellent opportunity coming over the horizon to signal a change of approach. At the present time, the Labour Whips are canvassing the views on tuition fees for the return of the Education Bill to the Commons. Nothing could better demonstrate that Tony understands that unity needs goodwill on both sides than for him not to insist that Labour back-benchers choose between their loyalty to the Government, and the manifesto which they presented to their constituents.