There are, as many Labour MPs will tell you, few advantages to being in Opposition. But as I argued (along with Mark Stuart) in a chapter in Nigel Fletcher’s recently-published How To Be In Opposition, one of the few benefits is that the media don’t focus on any internal divisions in the same way as in government. The same can be said of internal organisation.
Two weeks ago, and after a process of discussion dating back to just after the general election, the Parliamentary Labour Party revamped its Standing Orders. A cynic might respond with a ‘who cares?’ and argue that it’s hardly surprising that this didn’t attract any coverage. It’s true that many of the changes are fairly minor – more updating than major changes – but there were one or two amendments which have the potential to have a more substantial impact.
As someone interested in issues of discipline and cohesion, the most interesting changes are those to the Code of Conduct, the Appendix to the Standing Orders that is supposed to govern how Labour MPs behave. There are now six duties of a Labour MP:
a) To be in regular attendance at the House and to maintain a good division record.
b) To fulfil commitments and be cooperative in attending Committees of the House.
c) To refrain from personal attacks upon colleagues orally or in writing.
d) To act in harmony with the policies of the Parliamentary Labour Party.
e) To do nothing which brings the Party into disrepute.
f) To uphold the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009.
Of these, four are identical to those in the last set of Standing Orders (dating from 2006), but two are new. The last, f), is just a case of updating to include a reference to the post-expenses environment, but b) is more interesting, and it is a sign of a secret frustration that many in the party hierarchy have had over the last decade or so: that some MPs don’t pull their weight.
In 2009, during his second term as Chief Whip, Nick Brown (who holds the distinction of being both the first and the last Chief Whip during the Labour rule from 1997 to 2010) compiled a dossier on what the whips term ‘unauthorised absences’. It made it clear that the biggest problem the whips faced was not rebellion – although there was certainly a lot of that – but absenteeism.
He was savvy enough to know that whilst Labour constituency parties might well not look askance on MPs who defied the whip, they would not be impressed by those who just failed to turn up. Rebelling on principle was one thing; staying at home with a gin and tonic to watch Eastenders was something else. It helped Brown that in many cases the worst absentees were also some of the more rebellious; targeting indolence was a way of targeting rebellion. Brown’s plans to deal with the issue largely came to naught, swamped as Westminster was by the expenses scandal, but the concern did not go away.
The sanctions available to the Chief Whip when MPs do break the rules have now been changed, with a more varied set of sticks available. The section on voting against the whip – the so-called conscience clause – remains largely unaltered. Clause 3 states: “While the Party recognises the right of Members to abstain from voting in the House on matters of deeply held personal conviction, any such possible intention shall be intimated in advance and as soon as possible to the Chief Whip. This does not entitle Members to vote contrary to a decision of the Cabinet/Shadow Cabinet”. So Labour MPs can abstain, as they have always been allowed to, but not vote against the whip.
This rule, one suspects, will continue to be honoured as much in the breach as the observance; during the Blair years, that one rule alone was broken 6,520 times. And any Chief Whip who used the power given to them in Clause 4a(3) to write to Constituency Labour Parties to complain about dissenting votes would encounter the same problem that Labour encountered soon after 1997: dissenting MPs largely found themselves cheered to the rafters when local parties read out the letters, and encouraged to rebel further rather than punished for what they had done already.
The aim of these reforms, though, is to try to make it easier for the Chief Whip to target the PLP’s slackers and free-riders. That said, if as a by-product it takes out some rebels, I can’t imagine the Chief Whip will lose too much sleep.