Spare the rod and spoil the party - the whip's dilemma

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Indy Politics
Someone like Alan Simpson poses the disciplinarians of new Labour with a dilemma. To withdraw the whip for his attack would be an exemplary punishment, and would no doubt deter some more timid souls who might be thinking of doing a little left-wing grandstanding of their own. And since the left in the Labour Party is so marginalised at present, there probably wouldn't be much sympathy from his colleagues.

But that's also the problem. The left lack a place to go in the modern Labour Party. By virtue of their numbers, and sometimes the weight and charisma of their leadership, the Bevanites of the Fifties, the Tribunites of the Sixties and Seventies, and the Bennites of the early 1980s, were able to influence the party's policy, organisation and leadership by using their strength, often behind closed doors, within the Parliamentary Party and National Executive machines.

For the foreseeable future, at least, that route simply doesn't exist in a party most of whose enormous majority has such a clear sense of how they owe their presence to Tony Blair.

Which leaves publicity as the left's only weapon. The one lesson from the last six years of Tory backbench anarchy is that the surest way to get on to television or radio is to attack the leadership. This is seductive for those who disagree with almost every aspect of the platform on which they were elected, but have no power to influence the leader. Perhaps seductive also, in the future, for a few of those MPs with highly unsafe seats, little prospect of promotion and a desperate need to acquire a public profile.

And that's the dilemma for the whips: by taking disciplinary action they risk making them martyrs who have nothing to lose by maximum publicity. By not taking it they leave them free to seek the publicity anyway.

A lot of what Simpson says is nonsense. He argues, for example, that the great virtue of party conference decisions in the past - in favour of "restoring the value of the state pension" or the "elimination of nuclear weapons" was that a Labour government at least knew the goals of, to use his rather misty-eyed description, "the party in the country." Actually it often didn't tell it much more than how the executives of a handful of big unions, liberally sprinkled with members of another party altogether like the Communists, had chosen to wield their enormous block votes.

There is also a huge difference between conviction backbenchers who dissent on issues they passionately care about, and those, like Simpson, who disagree with many fundamental elements of the programme which secured him his majority of more than 13,000.

But that isn't a case for over-using the disciplinary weapon. A strong party can stand a certain amount of nonsense. One reason why the Tory backbench rebels did so much damage was not merely the spectacle of division they created, but the strong, and frequently accurate, impression they gave of exerting influence on the party's leadership. Nobody thinks Tony Blair is going to soften his party reforms because of an article in Red Pepper .

So it's a matter of judgement. To crack down on Simpson now would give him a ready-made platform as a Blair victim. To let him go scot-free might look weak leadership. Which is why it's unlikely to happen.

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