UK Politics

Jeremy Corbyn's Labour rebellion: A sign of things to come?

Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell Image copyright PA

Jeremy Corbyn has suffered the first Commons rebellion of his Labour leadership as 21 of his MPs refused to vote against the government's new economic rules.

The rebellion was smaller than many expected - but is it a sign of things to come for Mr Corbyn?

The vast majority of Labour MPs did not vote for him as leader and some have not held back in their criticism of him and shadow chancellor John McDonnell.

The worry for the Labour leadership is that more will join future rebellions, undermining Mr Corbyn's authority and wrecking his chances of running an effective opposition.

Osborne's trap

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Media captionJohn McDonnell: "When the circumstances and judgements change, it's best to admit to it and change as well"

Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell described Wednesday night's vote as political stunt and a trap - designed by Chancellor George Osborne to expose Labour's differences on the economy.

"Moderate" Labour MPs were surprised, and delighted, when Mr McDonnell said last month that he would back Mr Osborne's Charter for Budget Responsibility, which commits future governments to running a surplus in "normal" economic times.

But after studying the small print and "receiving advice" Mr McDonnell changed his mind and ordered Labour MPs to vote against it, saying the move would "underline our position as an anti-austerity party". Mr Osborne's "fiscal charter" would prevent a future Labour government from borrowing to protect public services from cuts.

Mr McDonnell sought to defuse tensions by admitting that he was "embarrassed" by his own U-turn on the issue. telling MPs: "When the circumstances and judgments change it is best to admit to it and change as well."

The overwhelming majority of Labour MPs did as they were told and voted against the charter, as did the SNP, but it will become law anyway, thanks to the government's majority.

'Authorised rebellion'

There were few surprises in the list of rebels - most are from the right of the party and have previously spoken out against Mr Corbyn's leadership.

Some of his more prominent critics, such as Chuka Umunna and failed leadership contender Yvette Cooper voted with the leadership. This either suggests there is no organised resistance to Mr Corbyn or they are keeping their powder dry for a more substantial issue. Former leader Ed Miliband also supported Mr Corbyn in the vote.

According to The Telegraph, Mr Corbyn threatened to sack shadow ministers who were planning to vote against him - but softened his stance when he realised the scale of the likely rebellion and allowed them to miss the vote.

In total, 37 Labour MPs failed to vote, including 16 whose absence was "authorised".

No immediate threat to leadership

Frank Field helped Mr Corbyn get on to the leadership ballot to "broaden the debate" despite the fact that he does not agree with his Labour-left brand of politics.

He says Mr Corbyn and Mr McDonnell are as "safe as houses" because there is no "alternative leadership" waiting in the wings of the Parliamentary Labour Party to take over. It is going to be a "bumpy ride" for the pair because they have never held such positions and are doing their learning "in public", he adds.

Explaining his decision to rebel against Mr Corbyn on Wednesday night, Mr Field said: "Labour lost heavily in 2015 because it appeared fiscally irresponsible. Signing up to the Charter matters little one way or the other.

"But it does signify a change in heart by Labour to move towards a balanced budget. That was John McDonnell's original position and he was right. He has, however, given into pressure from the Scottish Labour Party that unless Labour in Westminster made a token stand against the charter, Labour's hopes in Scotland would be further dashed."

'Flipping and flopping'

Other backbench rebels appear more concerned about what they have called the "chaos" at the top of the party.

Outspoken Rochdale MP Simon Danczuk accused Mr McDonnell of "flipping and flopping" over the fiscal charter.

He told BBC News: "John McDonnell has looked quite shambolic in terms of changing his mind. We need strong leadership. We won't win on a far left prospective, we have to win from the centre ground."

The danger men and women

Image copyright BBC News

Tristram Hunt is a leading light in Labour for the Common Good, a new group, known at Westminster as "the resistance".

The group was formed when Mr Corbyn's victory began to look inevitable and aims to give a voice to moderate Labour MPs who feel alienated by the party's new direction.

Unlike his fellow Common Good founder Chuka Umunna, Mr Hunt defied the whip last night, as did former shadow chancellor Chris Leslie and Liz Kendall, who was trounced by Mr Corbyn in this summer's leadership contest.

The Common Good group and their supporters insist they are not forming a breakaway party like the SDP in the 1980s and there appears to be little appetite for such a move in the Labour ranks. Mr Corbyn would be wise to keep an eye on these names, however.

Respect the mandate

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The scale of Jeremy Corbyn's victory and the breadth of his support among party members and the thousands who signed up for £3 to vote for him make him appear bombproof for now.

The Labour leader's supporters in Parliament, such as shadow international development secretary Diane Abbott, have repeatedly told his critics to "shut up" and respect his mandate.

He can and will appeal to the party members over the heads of his MPs - something that will not always go down well on the Labour benches. At other times he may disagree with his frontbench colleagues, and we will be encouraged to see it as part of a new, more open style of leadership, rather than a "split" or a "rebellion".

But Labour must still set clear policies on which it can fight an election - and Mr Corbyn will need to assert his authority over his party in important Parliamentary votes.

Future flashpoints

  • Syria - David Cameron is hoping to build Commons support for air strikes on so-called Islamic State militants in Syria. Mr Corbyn is opposed to any military intervention, but not all of his MPs - or his shadow cabinet - share this view. Mr McDonnell suggested a free vote could be held, allowing MPs to vote with their conscience.
  • Nuclear weapons - Mr Corbyn caused dismay on his front bench when he said he would not fire nuclear weapons if he were prime minister. He says Trident will form part of a defence review being carried out by shadow defence secretary Maria Eagle. But unless he can change Labour's policy he faces the unusual prospect of rebelling against his own party when Parliament votes on the issue next year. Labour MPs could be given a free vote to avoid a damaging split.
  • Welfare cap - The government's cap on overall household benefits had already split the Labour Party before Mr Corbyn took over, with 48 of its MPs opposing the Welfare Reform and Work Bill, which will reduce the cap to £23,000 in London and £20,000 in the rest of the country, in defiance of the then interim leader Harriet Harman's order to abstain. Mr Corbyn has said he wants to scrap the cap altogether, calling the policy "devastating". But Owen Smith, his shadow work and pensions secretary, has said Labour is only opposing plans to reduce it.

Here's the full list of Wednesday night's rebels

  • Fiona Mactaggart
  • Rushanara Ali
  • Ian Austin
  • Ben Bradshaw: former culture secretary
  • Adrian Bailey: former chair of the Commons business committee
  • Shabana Mahmood: former shadow Treasury minister
  • Ann Coffey
  • Andrew Smith: former work and pensions secretary
  • Simon Danczuk
  • Jamie Reed: former shadow home office minister
  • Chris Evans
  • Graham Stringer
  • Frank Field: former work and pensions minister
  • Gisela Stuart
  • Mike Gapes: former chair of the Commons Foreign Affairs committee
  • Margaret Hodge: former chair of the Commons Public Accounts committee
  • Tristram Hunt: former shadow education secretary
  • Graham Jones
  • Helen Jones
  • Liz Kendall: defeated leadership candidate and former shadow care minister
  • Chris Leslie: former shadow chancellor

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