The twelve rules of opposition: day seven

by Atul Hatwal

Rule 7 – My enemy’s enemy is my friend

It’s new year’s eve, a time to look forward to 2012 with hope. For her majesty’s opposition, it was a bad 2011 and if ever a political party needed to see some light at the end of the tunnel, Labour does now.

While most of the rules of opposition take a while to implement, rule 7 offers the potential to change the political weather sooner, rather than later.

It’s based on a simple fact of political life. Oppositions do not bring down sitting governments. Government backbenchers do.

The last three governments to lose office are testament to the power of the backbenchers.

The 1974-79 Labour government was crippled by rebellions. Over the course of the parliament there were 69 occasions where 40 or more Labour MPs voted against the government; inflicting defeats on 23 occasions.

Similarly, the 1992-97 Tory government was riven with division. 41 rebels voted against the Maastricht bill, to inflict a landmark Commons defeat on the government in March 1993, less than year after John Major’s election triumph. On this one bill alone there were 62 rebellions, destroying the Tories reputation for unity and setting the tone for the rest of the parliament.

And Gordon Brown was afflicted by unprecedented numbers of backbench revolts. In just the first two years of his premiership, he faced 103 rebellions, the largest number for any governing party over a parliamentary session (normally four years rather than Brown’s two) in over 30 years.

Rule 7 involves working with the government’s backbenchers to force those knife-edge votes which generate reams of news coverage, sap government energy and deliver government defeats which define a prime minister as losing control.

Unlike the other rules, this just requires two actions to be achieved. First, the setting aside of ideological differences to build common cause with some of the more outspoken members of the governing party in the face of the common enemy. And second, some manipulation of the parliamentary timetable.

Making the first of these actions a reality is not a random process, there are specific groups on the government side to target.

If Experian were to develop a mosaic analysis of backbenchers, regardless of party, or even time period, they would find five basic tribes:- loyalist journeymen and women who will follow come what may; ambitious wannabes whose loyalty is directly proportionate to their proximity to promotion, single issue ideologues who will be loyal unless they are crossed on their pet issue, disgruntled former ministers and never-were’s looking for revenge on the leadership; and hard-core trouble makers whose sole purpose is to try to defeat the leadership.

The task is to stitch together the ideologues, the passed-over and the trouble-makers around specific votes in the Commons.

For Ed Miliband’s Labour party, facing the Tories, the natural topic should be Europe, just as it was under John Smith and Tony Blair.

In October this year, Europe prompted the largest parliamentary rebellion in the Tories’ history when 81 MPs voted against the government in favour of an EU referendum. Cameron won the vote because Labour were whipped to vote down the referendum motion, but it exposed the potential size of the pool of rebels.

The current parliament is the most prone to rebellion on the government side there has ever been, particularly amongst the new intake. As of November this year, 69 of the new Tory intake had rebelled. That’s 47% of the new intake, or 54% if PPSs are stripped out.

Partially this is because of the independent nature of some of those elected, but also the requirements of coalition mean that many who might have had a reasonable expectation of office do not, because of the need for Liberal Democrat ministerial berths.

As time goes on, the numbers of wannabes who become disgruntled never-were’s will increase, swelling the ranks of the 81 rebels.

In 2012, if Labour wants to change the political dynamic, implementing rule 7 by reversing the Labour position on an in-out referendum will open the parliamentary fissure at the heart of the Tory party.

Given there are Lib Dems in favour of this as well, Cameron will not have the votes to resist. Any future referendum would then force Cameron to campaign in favour, against a substantial proportion, maybe even the majority, of his backbench party.

In terms of the second of the actions required for rule 7, manipulating the timetable, this is should be just a matter of time. There will inevitably be a parliamentary occasion where the ingenuity of opposition and rebel whips can combine to force some form of vote.

As with the other rules of opposition, rule 7 on its own would not mean people trusted Labour any more than they do today. But at the bare minimum the coalition would come under pressure in a way the opposition has not managed so far.

It might run against Ed Miliband’s vision of the new politics, but when it comes to drawing government blood, my enemy’s enemy is my friend.

Atul Hatwal is associate editor of Labour Uncut.

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2 Responses to “The twelve rules of opposition: day seven”

  1. Nick says:

    The osulum bird. So named because it stuck its head up its own back side.

    What’s needed isn’t a change in how the labour party operates. That’s political wonkery. It’s not going to change a thing.

    What’s needed is giving the electorate the direct vote on all issues.

    That way, the public gets what it wants, and gets what it deserves.

  2. Mike Homfray says:

    I think the exact opposite. No more referenda and government to stop wimping about and get on with doing their job

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