We are expecting a rebellion by Labour MPs later today over the government’s proposed ‘welfare cap’. If so, it will not be the first time Labour MPs have defied their party whip over welfare issues…
The largest backbench revolt against the very first Labour Government in 1924 was over benefits. A total of 73 Labour MPs – almost four out of every ten members of the PLP – voted against the MacDonald Government over the right of strikers to claim unemployment benefit. As a percentage of the PLP, this remains the largest ever rebellion by Labour backbenchers against their government, larger (in percentage terms) even than the revolts over Iraq. There were further rebellions on the Bill involving 68 and 43 rebels.
MacDonald’s second government, 1929-31, also struggled with the issue of unemployment benefit. The Unemployment Insurance (No 2) Bill, for example, saw repeated rebellions – the largest seeing 32 Labour MPs support an attempt by Jennie Lee to increase the level of benefit paid to the children of the unemployed from two shillings to five shillings a week. No fewer than 46 of the 62 divisions which witnessed Labour dissent in the 1930-31 session were on the issue of unemployment. Of these, an astonishing 39 took place on one bill – the Unemployment Insurance (No 3) Bill – which sought to impose various restrictions on the entitlement to benefit of various categories of workers. The legislation, which became known as the Anomalies Bill, was opposed by a determined group of Labour MPs. On 15 July 1931, Labour backbenchers opposed the Bill in 32 straight divisions (33 including the Business of the House motion at the beginning of the day’s parliamentary business), making it the highest number of Labour consecutive rebellions to take place in one day in any Labour Government before or since.
There were also significant rebellions over benefits in 1946 (32 Labour MPs rebelled over a clause in the National Insurance Bill that required claimants to apply to a tribunal for assistance after 180 days), in 1976 (30 rebelled over the Social Security (Misc Provisions) Bill that, inter alia, placed restrictions on the unemployment benefit of occupational pensioners) and in 1977 (when Audrey Wise moved an amendment to the Finance Bill, supported by 34 Labour MPs, that would have excluded from the calculation of taxable income the dependency allowance for dependent children of widows and others).
Of the three issues to see the largest rebellions during the 1997 Parliament, two of them were benefits issues. The issue of lone parent benefit contained in the Social Security Bill triggered the first major Government rebellion of the 1997 Parliament. 47 MPs voted against their whips, plus abstentions, and four MPs resigned from the Government. The later Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill triggered a total of 10 separate rebellions, involving a total of 74 MPs. The largest rebellion involved 67 MPs, plus a large number of abstentions. That was the largest revolt against the whip during the 1997 Parliament. The Brown government then saw a rebellion consisting of 30 MPs over the Welfare Reform Bill in 2009 (along with two other smaller rebellions of 26 and 29).
We do not expect today’s revolt to be very large – there will be lots of Labour MPs who find convenient reasons to be absent – and nothing to compare to some of these earlier revolts, when in government. We suspect it will not even be the largest rebellion by Labour MPs in opposition since 2010, when there have been revolts of 30+ and even 40+ Labour MPs on occasions. But that’s because Labour are in opposition. Should they return to government after the next election, we suspect there might be trouble ahead.