Labour's rebellious streak

By Kayte Rath
BBC Analysis and Research


With the UK's first coalition since the Second World War in power, the focus has been on Conservative and Lib Dem MPs who refuse to toe the line - but are Labour MPs turning out to be just as rebellious?

Image caption,
There are lots of rebellious MPs on both sides of the Commons

Since the last election, MPs on the government benches have been among the most rebellious of the post-war era.

In less than a year there have been 110 backbench rebellions by Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs, according to research by Professor Philip Cowley of Nottingham University.

With coalition MPs rebelling on 52% of votes, it is now more normal for them to occur than not.

This is record-breaking rebelliousness, says Prof Cowley.

Coalition tensions

But it is perhaps unsurprising, given the tensions within a coalition government where two parties are forced to make compromises to work together.

The rebelliousness is not confined to the coalition partners. Labour too is seeing its MPs unwilling to toe the party line.

On his website, Prof Cowley explains that since the general election there have been 37 rebellions by Labour MPs.

This is about 20% of all Commons votes, far less than the amount that government MPs have rebelled on.

However, the number of Labour MPs rebelling is higher than the Conservatives and Lib Dems put together.

Since May last year 105 MPs, or 41%, of the Parliamentary Labour Party have voted against the party whip, compared with 104 MPs from the coalition parties.

A rebellion is recorded every time an MP votes against the instructions of the party whips - who are charged with keeping party discipline - including votes cast when the party has told its MPs to abstain.

Labour rebellions have occurred across a range of issues such as anti-terrorism measures, Equitable Life, turnout at the AV referendum, the VAT rise and taxation of the financial sector.

Little coverage

There are also a small number of MPs who consistently rebel on "deferred divisions" - votes not taken directly after a debate, usually involving uncontroversial measures which follow on from existing acts of Parliament.

The largest Labour rebellion occurred in November 2010 - 48 of the party's MPs, nearly 20% of the parliamentary party, supported Labour backbencher Fabian Hamilton's amendment to the Equitable Life Payments Bill to extend compensation to people who took out policies before 1992. The party's line was to abstain.

Yet there has been little coverage of these divisions in the party.

Prof Cowley notes that although the figures include perennial rebels, they also include 17 Labour MPs elected in 2010 - a quarter of the new intake.

Yasmin Qureshi, MP for Bolton South East, is one of them. Since entering Parliament, she has voted three times against her party whip.

Image caption,
Yasmin Qureshi was elected last May but has already voted against her party whip three times

She says she does not see it as rebelling - just voting differently from her party.

For her, it is a matter of principle and she says she is fully behind the party and its leadership.

She told the BBC: "I'm very supportive of the party. It's just that, on certain issues, my party has agreed a line that I feel I can't support even though voting against it makes no difference.

"I believe on certain things it's the principle of it. I need to stick to positions I believe in, even though I'm in the minority.

"The issues where I have voted differently to the party are on civil liberties, mostly in relation to anti-terror legislation.

"Before I became an MP I campaigned heavily against those positions. I don't believe it's right now that I am in Parliament to do a 360-degree swing.

"You have principles and you have to hold on to them."

Other rebellious new MPs are Luton South MP, Gavin Shuker who has defied the party whip three times.

Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) and Steve Rotheram (Liverpool Walton) have done so twice each.

'Too comfortable'

And the research shows that there are 14 MPs who were loyal throughout Labour's time in government but have gone against the whip since being in opposition.

Veteran Labour MP Sir Gerald Kaufman is named by Prof Cowley, along with backbencher Hugh Bayley and former minister Barry Gardiner.

So should the party be worried about its rebels?

The focus is on divisions between the coalition partners and Labour rebels are unlikely to attract much attention for now.

But Prof Cowley believes that parties can get too comfortable in opposition.

Being subject to less scrutiny combined with more relaxed party discipline can breed defiance.

Entering opposition can also give a sense of freedom to MPs who have previously acted loyally within the constraints of government.

Prof Cowley says: "The party is more relaxed and it doesn't whip as heavily in opposition.

"The problem for Labour is that, for some MPs, there is a danger that opposition becomes too comfortable and rebellion too easy."

It is not the case that "once a rebel always a rebel" but it can become routine.

Prof Cowley says: "Rebellion is a habit one acquires and it can be difficult to shake off."

It could mean, by tolerating minor rebellions today, Labour leader Ed Miliband is storing up problems for the future.

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