The welfare cap rebellion – some comparisons

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.

Miliband’s Militants?

What seems a lifetime ago, we published a research paper looking at the possible scale of rebellion that might face Tony Blair if he became PM.  In a play on John Major’s remarks during Maastricht, we called it Blair’s Bastards.  Attention is now turning to what we might call Miliband’s Militants – the scale of the problem that would face Ed Miliband’s whips should he enter Number 10 next year.

George Eaton has a piece at the New Statesman on this week’s revolt over the welfare cap, in which he says ‘a significant minority of Miliband’s backbenchers are opposed to the policy’:

The size of the rebellion will be a good indicator of the number of MPs who could be expected to oppose future austerity measures introduced under a Labour government.

The number of Labour MPs likely to vote against this week are said to be around 10-15.  If so, that’s an optimistic view – from the perspective of the whips office – of the numbers who would vote against future measures after the election. Better to see this week’s rebellion as representing the very minimum who will oppose post-election.  In government the pressures on them to stick to the party line will increase, but so does the responsibility of knowing that it is your votes, and your party, that is implementing the legislation.

These issues have always caused problems for Labour governments.  The largest backbench revolt against the very first Labour Government in 1924, for example, was over benefits.  MacDonald’s second government, 1929-31, also struggled with the issue of unemployment benefit. The same was true of governments in the 40s, 60s, and 70s, The first major rebellion of the Blair government was on lone parent benefit, and the later Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill the largest rebellion against the whip of the 1997 parliament, involving 67 MPs, plus a large number of abstentions.

Even in opposition, we’ve seen Labour rebellions since 2010 consisting of 30+, and occasionally 40+ MPs. They go largely unnoticed in opposition, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t happening.

Young MPs, old MPs — what the public think and want

All the mainstream British political parties are – to varying degrees – now signed up to the underlying principle that political institutions should broadly reflect the social characteristics of the people they represent.  David Cameron’s very first speech as party leader in 2005 contained the claim that ‘We will change the way we look’. Ed Miliband has made several speeches on the same theme.  The idea that what Anne Phillips called ‘the politics of presence’ is important is now a widely, if not wholly, accepted part of political discourse in the UK.

Early concern about the politics of presence focussed almost entirely on social class.  But class then fell largely off the agenda, both in ‘real world’ and academic debates, to be replaced, first, by sex, and then, second, by ethnicity. All the main British political parties are committed to schemes to ensure that a greater number of women are elected as MPs (although these schemes vary in their strength and utility); there are also efforts (again, of varying strength and utility) to do something similar with the representation of ethnic minorities. Until very recently almost all senior British politicians speaking on this subject would mention both groups routinely, but with (at most) a passing reference to, some usually unspecified, ‘other groups’.

One group rarely discussed is the young. Or, come to that, the old. This guest post at the blog of the International Longevity Centre discusses the role of age in the debate over the politics of presence.

Jeremy Thorpe, on local candidates, 1962

Thanks to Matthew Bailey for this: Jeremy Thorpe, speaking in 1962, speaking on behalf of the Liberal candidate in the Norfolk Central by-election – and extolling the virtues of local candidates:

Thorpe says:

a man who does live, and make his living, in this part of the world, and who understands this division, and who by no stretch of the imagination could say had come to it simply to get a return ticket to Westminster is the sort of man who would be a very very good representative for Norfolk.

Clip is viewable here. Note the use of the word ‘division’, hardly ever used these days to mean consistency.  Local or not, the Liberal candidate came third.

Thorpe, of course, was born in London, and educated in Surrey, Eton and Oxford – but represented a seat in Devon. It would be churlish to point out such inconsistency, though.

Scouse gits, keg bitter and dandruff: why George Roper can tell us something about Tony Benn

A guest post by Matthew Bailey:

Tony Benn – to whom the House of Commons pays tribute today – was a man of parts. As Steve Fielding has argued, there was ‘Mark I’ Anthony Wedgwood Benn: the early career revisionist, with an accompanying modernising zeal – especially with regard to how the Labour Party presented itself to the electorate – and then the increasingly leftward moving ‘Mark II’ Tony Benn. But there was in addition Benn Mark III – at the tail end of his ‘official’ political career that then shaded over into the national treasure, and Benn Mark IV, who has been a prominent feature of the recent obituaries.

In the televisual tributes to him, you caught a whiff of Benn Mark I: the bright-eyed, camera-ready Benn in command of his whizz-bang, Omo-bright ‘Britain Belongs to You’ political broadcast of 1959. He was a youthful, up-to-the-minute politician, who had in the words of the title of one of his own publications read the ‘signposts for the Sixties’. Just contrast Benn’s ease on screen and deft delivery with Hugh Gaitskell’s nervous bonhomie and jittery eyes, for instance.

But after this glimpse of the future, the tributes shifted gear, and focussed on the late Benns of Mark III and IV. What was missing therefore was the sturm und drang of Benn Mark II. There was, for example, no footage of his ‘thousand peers’ speech to Labour’s 1980 Conference. But this was the Benn who really made his mark on British political history: the Benn who had some members of the political classes cheering to the rafters – fighting to be heard through the wild cheering for that 1980 conference speech – whilst others were in paroxysms of outrage. The absence of this version of Tony Benn from the programming left a gaping hole. And is why a viewer would struggle to understand precisely what Benn’s political importance was.

The BBC ought to dig out of its archives a 1975 episode of the sit-com Till Death Us Do Part. Entitled ‘Wedgie Benn’ the subject of the episode is obvious: Alf Garnett (the irascible working-class right-winger played by Warren Mitchell) and his left-wing son-in-law (Tony Booth – aka Tony Blair’s father-in-law) descend into one of their familiar rows about politics, this time centred on the perceived discrepancy between Benn’s well-heeled pedigree and his now pronounced radicalism. It is a hotline to the true significance of Benn Mark II as a living, crucial and highly divisive figure who loomed large in the country’s political life and its popular consciousness. It is a sign of just how totemic and symbolic a figure Benn was during the 1970s and early 1980s that TV writers and producers should be confident that Benn’s name could resonate enough with the audience to be used as the title and main subject matter for an episode of a popular prime-time comedy.

Nor is Till Death US Do Part an isolated example. There’s the ‘Wedgie Benn’ t-shirt worn by Reggie Perrin’s son for instance or this exchange (noted by Alwyn W. Turner) on rising unemployment between the eponymous George & Mildred’s Tory supporting neighbours:

Jeffrey Fourmile: I blame Anthony Wedgwood Benn

Ann Fourmile: Oh, Jeffrey. You blame him when you get dandruff.

And, to take one of my very favourite scenes in British comedy (in David Nobbs’ brilliant The Rise and Fall of Reginald Perrin), Benn was not only to blame for everything from joblessness to and itchy scalp, but he was one of the undesirable elements undermining the very fabric of the country:

In a 1974 episode of Steptoe & Son, Harold (already identified as a Labour supporter in previous episodes, a potential candidate and even planning to bequeath half his estate to Harold Wilson upon his death) offers a Leftist’s vision of the country gone to the dogs, no less apocalyptic than Jimmy’s:

‘It’s falling apart; it’s collapsing – there’s revolution in the air. You mark my words. Two years I gives it mate, two years. The only well-dressed people in the country will be the army and the police. I’m telling you – you watch out mate.’

At this Harold breaks into an imagined news broadcast, replete with martial music, reporting on the instillation of the new Prime Minister, Sir Percival Ashby DSO DSM and his promise of free elections ‘within the next 20 years’. The report continues with the news of Barbara Castle’s mysterious suicide in Charing Cross hospital, the ‘accidental’ torpedoing of the TUC’s boat on route to exile on the Isle of Man’ and the continuing public trial of Harold Wilson at Wembley Stadium. And, of course, perhaps imagined as some resistance figure or king over the water: ‘Meanwhile, the search for Anthony Wedgwood Benn continues’.

Tony Benn mattered in many ways. But he arguably mattered most and was an important figure because he was such a controversial, powerful, and for many deeply worrying politician at a particular moment in our political history. Obiturary and history, hindsight even, can cast its eye over the past. It can correct that moment because it knows what went wrong; what was achieved or fell by the way. It can attempt something final. But it is also, too often a summing up; a process of making things neat and tidy.

At his peak, there was a palpable fear (and equally forceful commitment) surrounding Benn and what he stood for. A ‘true’ picture or understanding of a person’s life is of course a desperately difficult task. It is perhaps all the more difficult if the usual measures  – in Benn’s case a ‘distinguished’ political career and all that entails – do not necessarily pertain. In trying to grasp the tangible – the offices held, the diaries left – we surely get somewhere but we may also fail to capture the impact and vital charge that surrounded Tony Benn in his pomp, a structure of feeling which might be more easily detected in a few lines of a BBC script.

Political Books of the Year. Where were the academics?

Last night was the second Paddy Power political book awards. And a jolly enjoyable night it was too.

Meg Russell’s book on the House of Lords was short-listed in the Practical Politics category, which was won by Tony King and Ivor Crewe’s The Blunders of Our GovernmentsThe award was presented to them by John Bercow, one of their former students. And Margaret MacMillan won the International Affairs prize for The War That Ended Peace.  Hurray for the academics, then.

Except that was, almost, it. In the other categories there was an almost complete absence of academic books – or, to put it another way, books written by academics. In the political history panel, for example, there were several short-listed books by professional historians but not one by an academic historian. This isn’t the fault of the judges (one of us, included), or of those doing the short-listing.  Nor is it that the work isn’t good enough. In panels where academic books got shortlisted, they had, if anything, a high success rate – as the two victorious books mentioned above indicated.  Rather the blame seems to lie with feeble publishers (and, doubtless some insular academics) who don’t put their books forward.  Where, for example, was Stuart Ball’s superb Portrait of a Party, the summation of decades of his work researching the Conservative Party in the inter-war years? Turns out his publishers didn’t submit it.

Presumably this is because publishers realise that, given their massive salaries and bountiful royalties that are already flowing into their bank accounts, academics won’t be interested in the £10k that comes with the book of the year prize (or the £3k that went with debut book of the year) or even the extra publicity and prestige that being short-listed might bring?  Assuming the prizes go ahead again next year, let’s hope that academic publishers get a bit more on the case.

Stoner: on the true nature of universities

Stoner was the surprise hit novel of last year, almost 50 years after it first came out.  Early on, one of the characters (but not William Stoner himself), outlines the ‘true nature of the university’:

It is an asylum or – what do they call them now? – a rest home, for the infirm, the aged, the discontent, and the otherwise incompetent.

Whatever can he mean?

WPQs: is DfE moving out of special measures?

Missed this when it was published last month, but the Commons Procedure Committee is now publishing annual reports on how speedily departments answer written parliamentary questions (WPQs).  The latest report finds overall responsiveness up (from 69% answered within a working week of tabling to 73%).  But it also finds massive differences between departments, from those, like DFID , FCO and Health that answer almost all WPQs within five working days down to Education, which manages less than 30% within five working days.

That said, the DfE is also singled out for its improvement.  In 2010-12. it was managing just 18% of questions asked within five days.  Provisional data from the current session shows it achiecing a figure of 96%.  As the report says, it ‘shows what can be achieved where minds are focussed on improving poor performance’.

 

Free-to-access, virtual issue of Parliamentary Affairs

To mark International Women’s Day, Parliamentary Affairs have published a virtual issue of the journal, featuring ten recently published or forthcoming articles on women and politics. All papers are free to access until the end of June 2014:

  1. Women’s Representation around the World: The Importance of Women’s Participation in the Workforce by Daniel Stockemer and Maeve Byrne
  2. Strengthening Women’s Roles in Parliaments by Susan Markham
  3. Cameron’s Problem with Women’: The Reporting and the Reality of Gender-Based Trends in Attitudes to the Conservatives, 2010–2011
  4. by Roger Mortimore, Gideon Skinner, and Tomasz Mludzinski
  5. When Is Contagion Not Very Contagious? Dynamics of Women’s Political Representation in Scotland by Meryl Kenny and Fiona Mackay
  6. Are Female Legislators Different? Exploring Sex Differences in German MPs’ Outside Interests  by Benny Geys and Karsten Mause
  7. Gendered Candidate Selection and the Representation of Women in Northern Ireland by Neil Matthews
  8. Gender, European Integration and Candidate Recruitment: The European Parliament Elections in the New EU Member States  by Cristina Chiva
  9. Towards Parity Democracy? Gender in the 2012 French Legislative Elections by Rainbow Murray
  10. Attitudes Towards Women in Politics: Gender, Generation and Party Identification in Ireland by Yvonne Galligan and Kathleen Knight
  11. ‘Having it All?’ Women MPs and Motherhood in Germany and the UK by Joanna McKay

What makes you unsuitable to be an MP?

There are some new data out from YouGov on what people think are ‘unsuitable’ characteristics in a politician.  They presented a list of 14 characteristics, from which respondents could choose three or four that they thought were ‘most unsuitable in a leading politician’.

Strikingly, the top five characteristics that people thought unsuitable were all perfectly legal activities; indeed, some of them — such as earning or having large amounts of money – might be considered by some to be signs of success.  They were:

  1. That they had never had a “real” job outside the worlds of national politics/think tanks/journalism/local government before becoming an MP (chosen by 55%)
  2. That they have a few million pounds and use legal methods to minimise their tax bill such as setting up trust funds for their children (41%)
  3. That they went to Eton and don’t understand how normal people live (38)
  4. That they worked as an investment bank, earning more than a million pounds a year, before becoming an MP (24%)
  5. That one of their parents was an MP and so they had the right connections when they wanted to enter politics (20%)

These easily trumped the things on the list that were actually illegal, but which were not considered by voters to be important: taking cocaine or heroin when younger (14%) or caught shoplifting when a teenager (5%).  

The crossbreaks are not all that exciting; slice it how you like — by party supported, sex, age class, or region – never having had a ‘real job’ was the worst sin.  But there was a clear tendency for UKIP supporters to be especially disparaging of the characteristics listed above: they were much more damning of those without a real job than respondents overall.

You could perhaps quibble over the wording in one or two cases, especially of the question about Eton: why include the sub-clause ‘and don’t understand how normal people live’, when there was no similar leading on the other questions?  But the overall message of the findings is pretty clear.