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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Jeremy Corbyn challenged by Labour MPs to sack Ken Livingstone from defence review

Former mayor of London criticised at PLP meeting over comments on 7 July bombings. 

After Jeremy Corbyn's decision to give Labour MPs a free vote over air strikes in Syria, tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) meeting was less fractious than it could have been. But one grandee was still moved to declare that the "ferocity" of the attacks on the leader made it the most "uplifting" he had attended.

Margaret Beckett, the former foreign secretary, told the meeting: "We cannot unite the party if the leader's office is determined to divide us." Several MPs said afterwards that many of those who shared Corbyn's opposition to air strikes believed he had mishandled the process by appealing to MPs over the heads of the shadow cabinet and then to members. David Winnick declared that those who favoured military action faced a "shakedown" and deselection by Momentum activists. "It is completely unacceptable. They are a party within a party," he said of the Corbyn-aligned group. The "huge applause" for Hilary Benn, who favours intervention, far outweighed that for the leader, I'm told. 

There was also loud agreement when Jack Dromey condemned Ken Livingstone for blaming Tony Blair's invasion of Iraq for the 7 July 2005 bombings. Along with Angela Smith MP, Dromey demanded that Livingstone be sacked as the co-chair of Labour's defence review. Significantly, Benn said aftewards that he agreed with every word Dromey had said. Corbyn's office has previously said that it is up to the NEC, not the leader, whether the former London mayor holds the position. In reference to 7 July, an aide repeated Corbyn's statement that he preferred to "remember the brilliant words Ken used after 7/7". 

As on previous occasions, MPs complained that the leader failed to answer the questions that were put to him. A shadow minister told me that he "dodged" one on whether he believed the UK should end air strikes against Isis in Iraq. In reference to Syria, a Corbyn aide said afterwards that "There was significant support for the leader. There was a wide debate, with people speaking on both sides of the arguments." After David Cameron's decision to call a vote on air strikes for Wednesday, leaving only a day for debate, the number of Labour MPs backing intervention is likely to fall. One shadow minister told me that as few as 40-50 may back the government, though most expect the total to be closer to the original figure of 99. 

At the end of another remarkable day in Labour's history, a Corbyn aide concluded: "It was always going to be a bumpy ride when you have a leader who was elected by a large number outside parliament but whose support in the PLP is quite limited. There are a small number who find it hard to come to terms with that result."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.