Philip Cowley: They huff and puff, but Labour MPs are the tamest since 1945

'When an MP rebelled for the first time, a Labour whip remarked: "There goes another virgin"'

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If you think that Labour MPs appear to have become more rebellious in recent months, then you're right. Whereas extraordinarily high levels of backbench cohesion marked the Government's first two years, the third and extremely prolonged session that has just ended saw that cohesion begin to decline. But if you think that this decline means that Labour MPs have now become feral rebels, then you're wrong. Despite the decline in cohesion, the current parliamentary Labour Party remains the most cohesive governing parliamentary party for almost a generation.

If you think that Labour MPs appear to have become more rebellious in recent months, then you're right. Whereas extraordinarily high levels of backbench cohesion marked the Government's first two years, the third and extremely prolonged session that has just ended saw that cohesion begin to decline. But if you think that this decline means that Labour MPs have now become feral rebels, then you're wrong. Despite the decline in cohesion, the current parliamentary Labour Party remains the most cohesive governing parliamentary party for almost a generation.

That Labour MPs - led by Jeremy Corbyn, Labour's most rebellious MP - are now more likely to vote against their whips is indisputable. Rebellions over the Criminal Justice (Mode of Trial) Bill saw up to 29 Labour MPs vote against what Bob Marshall-Andrews described as "one of the worst Bills to come before the House for many years". Forty Labour MPs voted against the Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Bill, to support an amendment to increase the basic retirement pension in line with earnings or the retail price index, whichever was the greater.

The Freedom of Information Bill saw six separate rebellions, the largest of which saw 36 Labour MPs vote against their whips. And the year's largest backbench rebellions - over the Government's plans to part-privatise the National Air Traffic Service (Nats) - saw four separate revolts of more than 40 MPs, even leaving aside all those who abstained. There were also less-noticed and smaller rebellions during the Terrorism Bill, the Football (Disorder) Bill, the Local Government Bill, the Northern Ireland Bill.

In total, from November 1999 to the end of the session on 30 November, there were 48 separate rebellions by Labour MPs. That is 13 more than in the first and second sessions of the Parliament put together. Yet this increase in rebelliousness - clear though it is - does not represent a collapse in cohesion. Just four of the 12 full-length post-war parliaments have seen fewer rebellions by this stage in their life. All four date from the 1940s or 1950s. Since party cohesion began to weaken in the 1960s and 1970s, at which point MPs of all parties became more likely to vote against the party line, every full-length parliament bar none has seen more rebellions by government MPs than the current one.

Wilson, Heath, Callaghan, Thatcher and Major all had to deal with far more troublesome parliamentarians than does Blair. By this stage of the 1992 Parliament, for example, John Major's government had faced 66 per cent more revolts than has Tony Blair's. And by this point the last time Labour were in government, there had been more than double the current number of revolts. So the recent decline in the cohesion of the PLP needs to be put into context: cohesion has weakened, but from a high base, and not by much.

Nor has it been caused by any notable increase in MPs prepared to break ranks. "There goes another virgin," a Labour whip was heard to remark when an MP rebelled for the first time earlier this year. Yet most of the PLP remain as chaste today as they were three years ago. At this point last year, a total of 101 Labour MPs had defied their whips at least once. A year later, and after 48 more rebellions, that number has increased by just 31, an increase of less than one new rebel per rebellion. With a few exceptions, the last year saw those who had already rebelled being prepared to do so again - just more frequently.

Moreover, that is effectively it till the election. There are rarely fireworks in final sessions. The approaching election tends to make even the most unhappy of MPs hold their tongues. And besides, there's usually less serious legislation to cause trouble. The issue of jury trials aside, this runt of a final session is unlikely to throw up many opportunities for further serious revolts. Those waiting (hoping?) for things to kick off - for Labour MPs to behave like Labour MPs always used to when in government - have been disappointed.

Barring disasters - and they would need to be real humdingers - this government is almost certain to go to the election having faced fewer rebellions than any recent government. And every government since 1970, even the Thatcher governments of the 1980s, has suffered at least one defeat in the Commons. Yet this one should reach the end of the Parliament undefeated in the Commons.

The media's reaction to this has been curious. When Labour MPs rebel, they have been damned for being divided. Yet if they don't, they are damned for being spineless. Yet it is pretty clear that this high level of backbench cohesion does not result from any lack of spine. Fear of the whips is not the explanation. In fact, most Labour MPs, even the most loyal of loyal, have a brutally low opinion of the whips' office. Rather the explanation lies in a combination of the legacy of 18 years in opposition and a concomitant desire to avoid being seen as divided; a notable rightward shift in the attitudes of the newer MPs elected in 1997; and - the bit too often overlooked - a government which has usually been willing to negotiate with its backbench critics.

Martin Salter, who, as one of the leaders of the Nats rebellion, cannot be accused of spinelessness, summed it up well during the debate on the Transport Bill. "In my short time in this place," he said, "various Bills have received a bumpy ride because of the legitimate anxieties of the Government's supporters." He listed reform of lone-parent benefit, welfare reform more generally, the Freedom of Information Bill, and the Immigration and Asylum Act. "In almost every case," he went on, 'the Ministers in charge listened carefully to the concerns and, after due modification, we ended up with better legislation and a happier parliamentary party." Salter contrasted this with the discussions that he had been having on Nats, where he claimed little progress was being made and where, as a result, we saw the largest rebellion of the year.

None of this means that the Government's MPs are not grumbling. The scale of the vote against Clive Soley, the incumbent chair of the PLP and seen as being too close to the Prime Minister, was proof of that. Yet against most press speculation, Soley still won. Disgruntled they may be at times, but Labour MPs are still more cohesive than any set of British parliamentarians since the 1960s.

 

The author is deputy director of the Centre for Legislative Studies, at the University of Hull

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