John McDonnell tops private members’ ballot

Though out of the Labour leadership race, he has topped the ballot to be first to introduce a privat

John McDonnell topped the private members' ballot held this morning, and so will be given priority when private members' bills are debated later on in the parliamentary session.

It has not been a good week for McDonnell, who withdrew from the Labour leadership race hours before nominations closed, after it became clear that he didn't have enough support to make it on to the ballot. Several of his supporters then transferred their support to Diane Abbott, who was able to secure enough nominations to get on the ballot. You can see Diane and the others in action at our debate last night here.

Customarily, when an MP tops the private members' ballot, he or she is approached by pressure groups hoping to get their legislation sponsored into a favourable spot in the debate. It is difficult to speculate at this stage what kind of issue McDonnell might use his top spot to raise, but he does have declared interests in the Punjabi community and endometriosis, and was among 70 MPs who signed an early-day motion for the extension of the period of copyright protection.

Although, due to a lack of time and support, the vast majority of private members' bills do not become legislation, some significant legislation has started this way, including the Abortion Act 1967 (introduced by David Steel), the Adoption Act 1964 and the 1965 act abolishing the death penalty.

More recently, Cheryl Gillan MP, who was drawn top of the ballot in 2008, sponsored the Autism Bill, promoted by the National Austism Society, which eventualy became law in November 2009.

UPDATE: We have now seen the press release from John McDonnell's office, and he says he will be using his top spot on the ballot to tackle the abuse of employment law. His comments in full:

"It's a funny old world, as one door closes another one opens. Coming top in this poll will enable me to tackle an abuse of the current employment laws by employers that I have tried to reform for the last 4 years. "

"As we have seen in the current BA Cabin Crew dispute and many other recent disputes, employers have been able to exploit a loophole in the existing law by using minor technical errors in a trade union ballot for industrial action to frustrate the democratic decisions of trade unionists who wish to take action. This resort to the courts by some ruthless employers is bringing current employment law into disrepute and undermining industrial relations in this country. The courts are being dragged into disputes and used as weapons in the hands of bullying employers. Even where there have been overwhelming majorities in ballots in favour of strike action, minor technicalities which would have no material effect on the outcome of the ballot, are being exploited to negate the democratic decision of the trade unionists involved. This cannot be right and in the interests of good industrial relations needs to be addressed."

McDonnell previously lent his support to the Trade Union Freedom Bill in 2006, which you can read more about in his blog post from that time.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

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Jeremy Corbyn's Virgin video is a Jennifer's Ear for modern times

Just as with the Virgin video, the fundamental underpinnings of the Jennifer’s Ear broadcast were true, regardless of the creative shortcuts.

Memory is a funny thing, in politics as in life. Gordon Brown was the co-architect of New Labour, the longest-serving Chancellor of the Exchequer since 1823 and very probably helped avert the end of money during the financial crisis.

But when James Morris, Ed Miliband’s pollster, ran focus groups in Nuneaton earlier this year, they  found that the incident that most people associated with Brown was of him punching a protestor during the 2001 general election. Except, here’s the thing: Brown never threw the punch at all. It was John Prescott, the then-deputy Prime Minister, who landed the blow.

And although Piggate was the funniest furore that David Cameron (remember: he was accused of having put his penis in a dead pig’s mouth at university) was involved in, it wasn’t the dead pig that focus groups remembered when they were asked about Cameron – right throughout his premiership, it was photos of Cameron cycling to work with a car carrying his papers following on behind that stuck in people’s minds.

The appeal of the latter row, and with the spat between Virgin Trains and Jeremy Corbyn, is that it feeds into an idea that is commonly believed by most people: that politicians are hypocrites. Our brains reward us with feelgood sensations for confirming our beliefs and with negative ones with findings that run contrary to them.

In case you haven’t followed: in the beginning, a viral video of Jeremy Corbyn depicted the Labour leader eschewing a first class upgrade to work in the aisle of a crowded Virgin train. Today, Virgin Trains hit back, revealing CCTV footage showing that there were, in fact, spare seats available from the start of the journey.

Of course, it is in Virgin’s interests to push back against a high-profile criticism of its services (not so much to avoid renationalisation but also the loss of the contract to another company) just as it is in Corbyn’s to have a sharper, video-friendly version of the – 100 per cent authentic – images of him on a bus home that frequently exploded on Twitter and Facebook during last summer’s Labour leadership election.

It feels very close to the so-called “War of Jennifer’s Ear”, the row that erupted over a Labour party political broadcast about the effects of 13 years of Conservative rule on the NHS in 1992. The  advert was based loosely on the operation of a girl whose father, John Bennett, had written to Robin Cook, then Labour’s shadow health secretary.

But the consultant in charge of the operation, who had blamed under-funding in a letter to the Bennett family before the advert came out, U-Turned once the broadcast had aired. (To make matters worse, Jennifer’s mother and grandmother, both Conservatives, also denounced the broadcast.)

Labour was plunged into controversy. The rights and wrongs of the row are still contentious, just as this row is likely to remain too. And it emerged very swiftly that key elements of the planning of the broadcast were shambolic – Cook’s knowledge of the ins and outs of the case were not as thorough as might have been hoped, the consultant had not been spoken to in detail, and the Toryism of Jennifer’s mother and grandmother came as a total shock. It may be that similar behind-the-scenes errors emerge about the Virgin video.

But just as with the Virgin video, the fundamental underpinnings of the Jennifer’s Ear broadcast were true – operations were cancelled and delayed due to underfunding, there are numerous trains that are overcrowded, where people have to sit in aisles, and so on.

Of course, Corbyn has a particular glass jaw over any issue that appears to be “spun” due to his “kinder politics” line. Just as Tony Blair promised to be “purer than pure”. it's a pledge that is the political equivalent of handing your opponent a stick and then politely explaining how best to hit you with it.  

Although the row over Jennifer’s Ear is now largely forgotten, it was one of the many scapegoats for Labour’s shock defeat in 1992, albeit one that every serious study into the loss concluded had nothing to do with the final result. (And it’s worth pointing out that even losing a row about the issues that your party “owns”, be it health or what to do with the railways, tends to be better for your side than talking about issues on which your party is on hostile territory)  Corbyn’s sitting arrangements, like the ear, will have a similarly limited afterlife. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.