Teflon Tony, otherwise known as the 'Houdini of British politics' has narrowly escaped a major political defeat yet again. It is however fair to say that his protective layer of teflon may be wearing off, as the Labour majority in parliament was reduced to just 5, down from the on-paper majority of 161. To reduce a majority of 161 to just 5 is the absolute height of incompetence. The bill on tuition top-up fees passed its second reading by a vote of 316 to 311, and the Labour Party's parliamentary group is looking seriously beleaguered after an intense few days of political haggling and backroom swindles.
The Rebellion Fails
As Tuesday's vote was looming, it looked as if Tony Blair was about 20-30 votes shy of the necessary votes to pass the bill. The day began with government supporters telling rebel MPs that they had to choose between Tony Blair or Michael Howard. The whips from both sides were sent out on last minute missions aggressively trying to win support. Some rebels were commenting that the tactics used by government whips 'was an attempt to intimidate us'.
Although Blair and company survived the vote, the serious divisions in the Labour Party point to problems in the future. Tories commented on the 'utter humiliation' of a government that had suffered the biggest revolt on a three-line whip in over 50 years. The Liberal-Democrat spokesman on education denounced the 'shabby charade' that saw a Labour government support 'a Thatcherite policy in direct opposition to what they said during the general election'. In the end 72 Labour MPs voted against the bill, with 19 abstaining. Blair's victory literally came down to the 11th hour. At 6.15 a party whip received a note saying that the government was still down by 3. At 6.45 another note claimed 'the hunt goes on'. Within the last half hour, 2 or 3 backbenchers fell in to line to give Blair his narrow victory.
This was Blair's third major rebellion in under a year. Blair also suffered a revolt on the war in Iraq, and on the question of foundation hospitals where 62 Labour MPs voted against the government.
Divisions at the Top
Tory co-chairman Liam Fox commented that 'Blair reigns, but Brown rules.' Many are saying that Gordon Brown's display of backroom muscle may give him his long-awaited shot at the premiership. His supporters in the party are crediting him with saving the government, making his case for leader of the Labour Party stronger. Apparently the Brownite team worked all day to swing some 20-30 rebel votes to the side of the government. In a perhaps not-so-surprising move, Nick Brown, the figurehead of the fees rebellion, announced Tuesday morning that he would support the government bill, saying that 'the concessions that the government made are good enough for me'. Well, the concessions may have been good enough for him, a Member of Parliament, but what about all the students who had faith in him and the rebels and for whom top-up fees will not be good? Mr. Brown's political somersault did not go unnoticed and is not without explanation. Blairite supporters commented that 'the concessions are meaningless, which was pretty clear when Nick Brown struggled to explain himself in the chamber'. It is clear that Nick Brown's cause is Gordon Brown's premiership, and not halting top-up fees. There was also another reason for the Browns to 'save the government.' As a Blairite supporter commented '(Gordon) didn't want Tony to lose the vote and for his camp to be seen as old Labour'.
What Are Students Left With?
After Nick Brown announced that he was switching sides, the NUS announced that they expected the bill to pass its second reading. NUS president Mandy Telford claimed that she was still hopeful, but disappointed that Nick Brown, the leader of the rebellion on top-up fees had jumped sides.
In the end it is students who lost yesterday, as top-up fees will only mean a two-tier post-secondary education system, less accessibility for students and workers to attend university, and a skyrocketing amount of debt for those that do actually attend university.
Top-up fees were rejected in Labour's 2001 election manifesto. Now Labour leaders and University Chancellors have joined in a chorus claiming they are so urgent that the bill on top-up fees must be immediately legislated. What this is really about is creating a market in universities and education. Some university chancellors are already talking about the 'privatisation' of the universities.
The divisions in the parliamentary Labour Party are unfortunately still based on back-room politics and not on issues. The division is not between old and new Labour, but divisions amongst right-wing careerists and bureaucrats jockeying for power, prestige and positions. This vote and the divisions in the Labour Party should serve as a warning to the working class – Labour MPs sat with long faces, looking beleaguered, while Tory MPs sat with the largest smiles on their faces in years. It is entirely possible that if Labour continues down this road, that the Tories could carry the day in the next general election.
Blair's victory in parliament has not settled this matter. Top-up fees can still be defeated. The NUS must immediately organise action including a mass demonstration as well as appealing for support from the TUC. The NUS must begin organising school students who are most hard-hit by this attack. A mass movement can still defeat this bill even if some Labour rebels don't have the backbone to do so.