Labour’s unity is skin-deep

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

Ed Miliband. Photograph: Getty Images

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.