Dissenting Tories pushed out of backbench committee

MPs broadly sympathetic to the leadership are elected to influential 1922 committee.

If there is one thing the Conservative Party has in ample supply at the moment, it is internal tension about the direction of travel. This was reflected in elections for the influential 1922 committee of backbench MPs last night.

The 1922 committee is seen as a barometer of backbench opinion, and gives MPs a forum to connect with the leadership. It has long been a thorn in the side of David Cameron, who caused outrage early in his premiership by attempting to reform the committee so that ministers could become full members. He eventually backed down on this move, which Gary Gibbon described as akin to "the management demanding seats on the union negotiating team".

However, it looks as if the Prime Minister might have managed to neutralise the committee, which is frequently critical of the leadership and has largely represented the party’s Eurosceptic, traditional right wing, frustrated with the compromise of coalition.

After elections for the committee last night, several long serving MPs who are critical of the coalition and Cameron’s modernising agenda were voted off, including Peter Bone and Christopher Chope. In their place, candidates from the “301” group of MPs – so called because it represents the number of MPs needed for an overall majority at the next election – were elected. These MPs, many of whom are from the 2010 intake, are broadly supportive of the leadership and believe that the 1922 committee should be modernised.

So what does this mean? Firstly, while there will be cause for celebration in both Downing Street and the Treasury, it is perhaps needless to say that this is unlikely to be the end for internal strife. Over at ConservativeHome, Paul Goodman says he is “not altogether persuaded” that allies of Cameron and George Osborne didn’t interfere in the elections, warns:

Some of those who weren't re-elected - or elected at all - may feel that they now have nothing to lose in criticising the government very strongly indeed.

As James Forsyth points out at the Spectator, this election had a 93.8 per cent turnout, making it very representative of the parliamentary party. However, no single group was victorious - some of the "old guard" hung onto their places. This says something about the state of the Tory party and the direction its members want it to go. A Guardian editorial today explains the dilemma thus:

The question that really divides the party is whether in the face of austerity it returns to an enhanced core-vote strategy of shoring up the right flank from Ukip by focusing on the traditional crime, immigration and Europe agenda, or whether to keep faith, despite the vastly altered circumstances, in Cameron's modernising programme and anchor the party to the centre-right.

As this election shows, the battle is very much yet to be won.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.