Loyalty used to be described as the Conservative Party’s “secret weapon” – but in this parliament it has seemed more like Labour’s. As David Cameron has endured rebellions over the EU,
gay marriage and House of Lords reform, Ed Miliband’s party has remained united. The “bloodbath” that many predicted would follow Labour’s defeat in 2010 never came.
Beneath the façade of unity, however, policy divisions persist. As the New Statesman went to press, as many as 25 Labour MPs were expected to rebel against the party whip over the decision to support George Osborne’s new cap on welfare spending. For the left, the cap is a crude device, designed to perpetuate the Conservatives’ false divide between “strivers” and “scroungers”, and a threat to support for the vulnerable. Under the new limit (set at £119bn for 2015-2016), which includes all benefits except the state pension and cyclical unemployment benefits, the government will have to cut spending if the cap is breached by more than 2 per cent.
The Labour MP Diane Abbott told me she opposed the policy on the grounds that it would “encourage cuts in benefits, rather than long-term strategies to do things to bring the benefits bill down, like housebuilding, like a rise in the minimum wage”. She added that it was “part of a political narrative which demonises welfare claimants. Most of the public don’t understand that half of welfare claimants are pensioners and that another quarter are in work.”
Other MPs who confirmed to the NS that they would vote against the policy included Ian Lavery, Mike Wood and John McDonnell. As the chair of the Socialist Campaign Group (founded by Tony Benn in 1982 as a breakaway from the soft-left Tribune Group), McDonnell is the leader of Labour’s most reliably rebellious faction. While numbers have fallen significantly since 2005 as a result of several members retiring, the group retains about 15 affiliates (no official list is available).
For now, Labour can dismiss such rebels as the “usual suspects” (as one source did), but were Miliband to enter Downing Street with a small majority, he could be held hostage by his party’s left. Policies such as a welfare cap are precisely the kind of austerity measure that will be required to meet his strict deficit-reduction targets – and that his backbenchers will seek to obstruct.
It is only the coalition (and its inbuilt majority of 82) that has prevented Cameron from suffering an irrevocable loss of authority. Had the Tories won a small overall victory, measures such as gay marriage would never have made the statute book and Cameron would have been pushed towards unreasonable and even illegal stances on the EU and immigration.
In the Blair era, there were huge rebellions over the Iraq war, foundation hospitals and tuition fees but because of his governments’ even larger majorities he usually avoided defeat. For Miliband, however, who concedes that the general election will be “close”, such protection will not be available.
A Labour government could seek to pass austerity measures with the help of the Tories and the Lib Dems but this would rely on the opposition parties not playing dirty by tabling their own amendments. After cursing Miliband for “playing games” during the Syria vote last summer, many Conservative MPs will be preparing their revenge.