Labour’s unity is skin-deep

Members of the shadow cabinet don’t trust their leader to cover their backs, says Dan Hodges.

So much for unity. On 19 March, Ed Miliband experienced the most damaging parliamentary rebellion of his leadership so far, when 43 Labour MPs defied the whip and voted against the Jobseekers Bill, which enables the government to withdraw benefits from those refusing to participate in the Work Programme.

On the surface, it looks like the standard fisticuffs between the hard left and the Labour leadership. Glance at the names of the rebels, however, and it soon becomes clear that these were not your daddy’s usual suspects. Gerry Sutcliffe, John Healey and Nick Brown were just three of those who defied their leader’s order to abstain and voted against the legislation.

Fault lines are widening between Miliband, his shadow cabinet, the Parliamentary Labour Party and his party activists. They have existed since Miliband’s election but his shift to the left, a succession of coalition crises and Labour’s stalled programme of policy development masked them. Not any more. No sooner had the rebels set foot in the division lobbies than what one Labour MP described as “Ed’s teenage outriders” began opening up on members of Miliband’s shadow cabinet.

“Labour will never offer a coherent alternative to the Tories so long as the likes of Liam Byrne wields influence,” the Independent’s Owen Jones wrote. “It is a question and a challenge for Jon Cruddas,” wrote Sunny Hundal on the Liberal Conspiracy website. “Will he take on Liam Byrne’s failed policies of the past or let him continue and take Labour into the ditch . . . again?”

The attacks did not go unnoticed by some of Byrne’s and Cruddas’s colleagues. They are aware that Miliband’s office has been courting Jones and Hundal. The suspicion is forming that whenever Miliband faces a backlash, individual shadow cabinet members will find themselves pressed into service as human shields, protecting their leader from criticism.

Much has been made in recent months about Labour’s “policy vacuum”. Less attention has been focused on its difficulty in holding the line on policies that have already been unveiled. In the wake of the recent debacle, Byrne wrote what was in effect a mea culpa for LabourList. Acknowledging that the party’s “decision not to support the bill in the Commons but to abstain was very, very difficult”, he meekly concluded: “I think we made the right call.” Yet in January, Ed Balls was placing welfare sanctions – which the Work Programme seeks to enshrine – at the very heart of his “tough but fair” jobs guarantee.

A vicious circle is forming. Policy is announced. It generates a backlash. Miliband ducks for cover. His “outriders” start picking targets among the shadow cabinet. The shadow cabinet dives for cover. A vacuum develops.

Meanwhile, suspicion is increasing. Members of the shadow cabinet don’t trust their leader to cover their backs. The leader doesn’t trust them to cover his. Labour MPs see a lack of authority and begin to act in their own interests – interests increasingly defined by activists, who see a leadership prepared to back down whenever they flex their muscles.

Unity may be strength but, in Miliband’s Labour Party, it is only skin-deep.

 

Ed Miliband. Photograph: Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 01 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special Issue

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Children from "just managing" families most excluded from grammar schools

Shadow education secretary Angela Rayner said grammar schools "offer nothing to most kids".

Children from "just about managing" families are unlikely to benefit from an expansion of grammar schools because they don't get accepted in the first place, research from the Sutton Trust has found.

The educational charity also found that disadvantaged white British pupils were the least likely among a range of ethnic groups to get access to elite state school education. 

Shadow education secretary Angela Rayner said: “The Tories are failing our children. They should be delivering a country that works for everyone but all they have to offer is a plan to build an education system that only helps a handful of already privileged children.

"The evidence is clear - grammar schools reinforce advantage and offer nothing to most kids."

Theresa May launched her premiership with both a pledge to make Britain work for the "just managing" families (consequently termed Jams), and a promise to consider expanding grammar schools. 

The Sutton Trust researchers used the Income Deprivation Affecting Children index to compare access rates to those defined "just about managing" by the Resolution Foundation. 

They found that even non-disadvantaged pupils living in deprived neighbourhoods are barely more likely to attend grammar schools than those in the poorest. The report stated: "This is a strong indication that the ‘just managing’ families are not being catered for by the current grammar school system."

The Sutton Trust also found different ethnic groups benefited differently from grammar schools.

Disadvantaged Black pupils made up just 0.8 per cent of pupils in 2016, while disadvantaged white British pupils made up roughly 0.7 per cent, although disadvantaged white non-British children fared slightly better. Among disadvantaged groups, Asian pupils made up a substantial proportion of grammar school pupils. 

Sutton Trust chairman Sir Peter Lampl said: “Today’s research raises concerns about the government’s plans to use new grammars as a vehicle for social mobility. We need to get existing grammars moving in the right direction before we consider expanding their number.”

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.