New Labour, new Stalinists? Not a chance

MPs' fears that a disciplinary code will stamp out legitimate dissent are unfounded
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The Independent Online
Take two fictional Labour MPs. One is Nigel Barton, the heroic and flintily working class left-wing MP immortalised by Dennis Potter in the 1970s. The other is Lynton Charles, the irredeemably middle-class Blairite careerist lovingly parodied in each week's New Statesman. Is Labour's new disciplinary code simply a way of advancing the interests of the latter at the expense of the former? Is it plain sensible leadership or more evidence of the Labour leader's Kim Il Sung tendency towards democratic centralism?

These questions, even if not openly expressed, will lurk in the minds of the Parliamentary Labour Party when they debate the new code tomorrow. It's certain that the PLP will back, by an overwhelming majority, the creation of a new disciplinary offence of bringing "the party into disrepute". The more interesting issue is how much of their independence as MPs they are sacrificing by doing so. This isn't just an academic question. The new offence hasn't merely been created to make the leadership sound macho. It's true that the existing standing orders of the PLP already oblige MPs to turn up regularly and have a "good division record"; to "refrain from personal attacks upon colleagues orally or in writing" - to "act in harmony with the policies of the Parliamentary Labour Party". But it isn't clear, for example, that for Jeremy Corbyn to sponsor a Commons book launch for Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president, cuts across any of these obligations. (Grown-up party leaders can scarcely argue that no Labour MP should under any circumstances make contact with Sinn Fein when ministers and shadow ministers do exactly that). But had the code been in force, and had Gerry Adams not himself withdrawn from the event, the whips might well have argued that the adverse publicity would have brought the party into disrepute.

It would also have made it considerably easier to arraign Alan Simpson, the prolific and quietly spoken Campaign Group member, for the dozens of occasions on which he is alleged to have publicly criticised the Labour leadership since becoming an MP. Not to mention the latest case in which he, Mr Corbyn and the outgoing veteran Eddie Loyden, have signed a mass petition originating with the Socialist Workers' Party.

In other words, it's there to be used if necessary. Removing the whip, the ultimate penalty which the Chief Whip already has, can mean the MP is unable to stand as a Labour candidate if the punishment isn't lifted before a general election. What's more, the new rules carry an extra stipulation - that the MP's constituency must be told even if the MP is simply reprimanded. There may be some constituency parties where this is a badge of honour, but many fewer than there used to be.

In theory, a megalomaniac party leader could use it as an instrument for preventing even the most minor deviation from the party line and thus neutralise Parliament's historic role to question the government.

But in practice this would not be for long. First, a seriously Stalinist leader, backed by a whips' office worthy of the NKVD and an entirely supine party, could probably use the existing - and more catch-all - duty to act in harmony with party policy for that purpose if he wanted. But anyway, an MP cannot be penalised unless the PLP votes in favour. Second, the new rules will not remove an MP's right to abstain from voting for the government "on matters of deeply-held personal conviction".

Is it likely, for example, that Tam Dalyell, one of the most persistent questioners of the executive and all its works, would be held by a majority of his colleagues to have brought the party into disrepute if he persisted in asking questions about some malfeasance by ministers? Or the Labour chairman of a select committee who had strongly criticised the government's social security policy? Or Dennis Skinner for calling for the renationalisation of coal? Hardly.

What's more, the new rules provide one genuine improvement in backbencher democracy - the formal creation of departmental committees to which ministers are required to give account of themselves and regularly hear the views of MPs. This proposal isn't just cosmetic. It requires, for example, notice of plans for all "forthcoming Bills, major statutory instruments, Green and White Papers" and that "backbenchers will be consulted before major policy decisions are taken".

The code has an interesting history, dating from the mid-Seventies in which relations between government and PLP were at something of an all- time low. It was drawn up by a backbench committee - chaired, ironically, by John Horam, now a Tory minister but then a member of the Tribune Group - but never fully put into practice. If they had been, it's possible some low-cost legislation like the Freedom of Information Act and race relations reforms might have been introduced with a resulting improvement in party morale. It's even possible that the Prime Minister might have been persuaded through better communications with the PLP to hold the election in 1978 rather than 1979.

So yes, the code is designed to try to make the Labour Party as disciplined as the Tories were in the Eighties, something which Labour has chronically failed to do in government in the past. It is supposed to remind Labour MPs that they will owe the election of a Labour government not to their own individual militancy as MPs but to the changes the party in general, and Tony Blair in particular, has made. It is supposed to send a clear message that you can't be elected on a new Labour platform and then spend your time sabotaging it once you've arrived. But they aren't anything like as illiberal as their critics will claim. The Nigel Bartons won't have it all their way. But nor will the Lynton Charles's.