Don’t let the recent flurry of rebellions fool you. Despite 12 separate revolts by back-bench Labour MPs in the first two weeks of this month – nine on disability benefits, two over the Immigration and Asylum Bill, and one on the House of Lords Bill – this Parliamentary Labour Party is one of the best behaved of the post-war era.
Troublesome backbenchers were one of the defining features of old Labour. Previous Labour leaders would play down the rebellious record of their MPs, arguing either that things were not as bad as people thought (true) or that some division within a party was a sign of healthy discussion (wishful thinking). Tony Blair’s strategy was different: he deliberately talked up how bad things used to be, in order to talk about how good things had become. As with the creation of so much of new Labour, this involved distorting and exaggerating the historical record, but it allowed the party’s supposed cohesion to be presented as an important part of what made it new, and (just as importantly) what made Labour different from the Tories.
Judging by the PLP’s behaviour so far in this parliament, Blair appears to be right. Rebellions are far from frequent. In the first two sessions, from election in May 1997 to prorogation this month, Labour MPs voted against their whips on 35 occasions – roughly one rebellion every 20 votes. The last time Labour was in power, members of the PLP had rebelled 115 times by the end of the second session. By this stage of the last parliament, John Major’s backbenchers had rebelled on 119 occasions.
In making comparisons, we should leave aside the three “short” parliaments of 1950, 1964 and February 1974, which had stunted (or non-existent) second sessions, and where the forthcoming election loomed large from the beginning. That leaves 12 “normal” postwar parliaments and, of these, only three – those of 1951, 1955 and 1966 – were less rebellious.
Issues that have caused nightmarish problems for previous governments have passed without a squeak this time. With the exception of two small rebellions during the European Parliamentary Elections Bill – and both rebellions were about the scope and method of the electoral system rather than about the European Union itself – there have been no revolts over European policy. Compare that to the last parliament, when 138 Labour MPs collectively cast almost 1,300 votes against their party line over the Maastricht Bill alone. And the legislation for devolution caused only one rebellion, consisting of one MP. Compare that to the trouble devolution caused the Callaghan government in the 1970s.
Especially loyal have been the women MPs elected in 1997, of whom seven have rebelled so far. The list of the most rebellious MPs (below) – those who have voted against the whip on 13 or more occasions – contains not one newly elected woman. The most rebellious, Ann Cryer, comes a very long way down the list at joint 32nd.
So despite this month’s rebellions, nobody could sensibly call the parliamentary party mutinous. And indeed, the dominant metaphors have been those of Dalek or sheep. The complaint used to be that Labour leaders were not in control of their party; now it is said that they are too much in control.
Yet being well-behaved is not the same as being spineless. Some Labour MPs believe that their sole purpose is to give unquestioning support – with both vote and voice – to everything the government does. But they are few in number. The real reasons for the lack of rebellion are more complicated, and more creditable.
Many Labour MPs – particularly, but not exclusively, the newer ones – support the government not because they are sheep-like, but because they are reasonably happy with what ministers are doing. Even many of those who have been occasional critics still value much of what the government has achieved.
Many of those who are less happy are exercising considerable self-discipline. Blair’s plea to the newly elected PLP in May 1997 – “Look at the Tory party and then vow never to emulate them” – was largely unnecessary. Most could see for themselves the effect of Conservative infighting (even though for much of the 1992 parliament Conservative MPs rebelled infrequently – what did for them was their suicidal willingness to broadcast their differences in TV studios across the land). After 18 years in opposition, Labour MPs had, and still have, no desire to do anything that might help send the party back to the wilderness.
The government also deserves some credit. When it comes to relations with its backbenchers, the government is not nearly as dictatorial as its image suggests. Even some of those MPs who have rebelled agree that the government has been listening to their concerns as much as might be expected, particularly after the scale of the lone-parent revolt in December 1997, which made ministers realise that coercion alone could not prevent rebellion. Only when the government has taken a macho stance – as with its first proposals on disability benefit in May – have rebellions been significant. Where it has sugared the legislative pill, the story has been different.
Thus a total of 61 Labour MPs signed the Early Day Motion calling for the government to reconsider its plans over asylum-seekers. After some relatively minor concessions from the Home Secretary, just seven voted against the bill in June. The rebellions this month over disability benefit were one of the rare occasions when the government has tried but failed to barter and negotiate its way out of trouble.
When they think the government is wrong, Labour MPs are prepared to vote against it. A total of 101 MPs – around one in three of the backbenchers – has rebelled at least once during this parliament. The rebellious tendency extends well beyond the usual suspects. In the unlikely event of them all rebelling together, there would be enough of them to wipe out the government’s majority.
And when they do break ranks, Labour MPs do so in numbers. The average Labour rebellion this parliament has involved 21 MPs. This is higher than the figure for all but three postwar parliaments – those of 1966, February 1974 and October 1974. All periods of Conservative government have seen smaller average rebellions. When the circumstances are right, Labour MPs are far from acquiescent.
Seen in this light, the infrequency of rebellions is more positive. It is not that MPs are too scared to defy their leaders; rather, it is a result of agreement and consultation as much as of coercion. The pattern of selective, but quite large, rebellions suggests that the Labour MPs now at Westminster are not natural rebels, acting awkwardly for the sake of it. But, equally important, it suggests that when the rebellions do occur, the government has only itself to blame.
The writer is deputy director of the Centre for Legislative Studies at Hull University
The most rebellious Labour backbenchers
The number of times each MP has voted against the government in the Commons
Jeremy Corbyn (Islington N) 24
Tony Benn (Chesterfield) 23
John McDonnell (Hayes & Harlington) 23
Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) 20
Audrey Wise (Preston) 19
Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak) 18
John McAllion (Dundee E) 18
Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow) 15
Alan Simpson (Nottingham S) 15
Diane Abbott (Hackney N & Stoke Newington) 14
Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) 14
Kelvin Hopkins (Luton N) 14
Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent) 14
Harry Barnes (Derbyshire NE) 13
Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow) 13
Ken Livingstone (Brent East) 13
Robert Wareing (Liverpool West Derby) 13