The third reading of the covert human intelligence sources (criminal conduct) bill divided the Labour left in parliament yesterday. 34 Labour MPs, plus suspended Claudia Webbe, defied the whip on the controversial government-proposed legislation, and seven frontbenchers including shadow ministers Dan Carden and Margaret Greenwood quit to vote against it. The rebellion was the biggest so far under Keir Starmer’s leadership but could have been much larger: it was in the mid-40s that afternoon, I’m told, but the Labour leader himself took charge of efforts to get Labour MPs in line on Monday evening at the Parliamentary Labour Party meeting and continued to do so yesterday. This lobbying is understood to have prevented at least another eight frontbench resignations.
As Corbynsceptics did over recent years, the Labour left is struggling to settle on a path for maintaining power and influence under Starmer’s leadership. MPs on the left were not divided over the bill’s substance but over strategy: frontbenchers including Andy McDonald, Imran Hussain, Rachael Maskell, Cat Smith, Marsha de Cordova, Alex Sobel, Sam Tarry and Charlotte Nichols decided that abstaining on a bill – that will pass regardless of how they vote – was worth it. Any return to the “sealed tomb”, in which the parliamentary left was encased by Tony Blair, is obviously undesirable. But others considered the subject matter, which includes ‘spycops’ relationships that amount to state-sanctioned rape, to be too sensitive. It was a “matter of conscience”, Carden said.
Those who did not quit took a “collective decision” to “use their roles to ensure the left has a stronger voice in future party policy”, a source close to the group said. They secured what have been described as “concessions” from Starmer: from aggressively pursuing amendments in the Lords, and a clear statement that Labour in government would reform the bill, to pursuing legislation on trade union issues (e.g. the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign) and voting against the other controversial government legislation, the overseas operations bill, at third reading. But most of those had either already been confirmed by Starmer or they are moves that he would not have a problem with.
Some close to the leadership believe that members on the left are coming round to Starmer’s way of looking at parliamentary votes and the party’s electoral strategy. It is the following. With an 80-seat Tory majority, the government can easily get its business through. The only way to change that is to win the next election. And the only way Labour can win is to fight the impression that it doesn’t care about national security, or even that the party would be a threat to it in government. And part of that mission is abstaining on bills like these, which are “far from perfect” but “necessary”, as Conor McGinn argued on LabourList. Whether that is either morally right or effective (the Tories still put out the message, “Labour can’t be trusted on national security”) is still a subject of debate in the party.
This was not a pivotal moment that will shape Starmer’s Labour: he is the leader, and he has clear ideas of how to get the keys of No 10. A slightly lower or higher number of rebels would not have changed that. But it was an important moment for the Labour left, offering food for thought. The candidate selections leading up to the 2019 general election were a key player in last night’s vote: 16 of the 34 rebels were elected for the first time last year. The Socialist Campaign Group and Momentum aren’t the only sources of power: Geraint Davies and Sarah Owen also broke the whip, and soft left group Open Labour joined trade unions in urging the Labour leadership to change course earlier this week. Whether these lessons can form the basis of a coherent, joined-up approach remains to be seen. Sign up to LabourList’s morning email for everything Labour, every weekday morning.