Stephen Byers’ intervention during the Budget debate was a timely reminder that ex-Cabinet Ministers can carry real weight in the Commons. Byers said that the 50% tax rate “is damaging to the Labour Party in government” and “breaks a key manifesto pledge which the party will regret for many years to come." Hear Hear.
Unfortunately for Byers' constituents though, that was the first time he has contributed to a debate in the House of Commons for over a year. Low attendance and participation in Parliament by Labour MPs was first raised by the Government’s Chief Whip Nick Brown. He claimed that about 20 or so backbench Labour MPs were “idle” . So a little investigation conducted before Easter found that Labour’s ex-Cabinet Ministers are amongst the most idle Labour MPs in the Commons.
Byers is only one example of ex-Labour high-fliers not pulling their weight as MPs in Parliament. The highlights (or should that be lowlights) include John Prescott and Ian McCartney voting less than half of the time, just beating David Blunkett on 50%, as the lowest voting ex-Cabinet Ministers. And it also uncovers Prescott, Alan Milburn and Byers (before April 2nd) failing to speak once in the previous 12 months in the Commons. The table below (based on information from www.theyworkforyou.com which was up-to-date on April 2nd 2009 and relevant for the last 12 months) shows how little participation there is by ex-Ministers, whether speaking, taking part in Committee work or simply asking questions.
So why is it that they think it’s acceptable to withdraw from their duties? A possible explanation is that they are so disillusioned with the Brown Government that they have given up the ghost. Many of Labour’s former Cabinet Ministers are defined as ‘Blairites’, and have spoken, sometimes candidly, of their disapproval of Gordon Brown. Charles Clarke is renowned for his outbursts against the PM, most recently saying that Brown’s strategy in dealing the bloated expenses system had left Brown "very" damaged and himself “ashamed to be a Labour MP”.
Alan Milburn, one of Blair’s allies, regularly briefed against by Brown’s henchmen during his time as Health Secretary, was more than willing to get his revenge during Smeargate. The Darlington MP was one of the first Labour politicians to speak out on the scandal, saying to reporters: “For years it has been members of the Labour party who have been on the receiving end of vicious briefing campaigns…” This episode, he continued saying, has “inflicted huge damage on the Labour Party.” But the biggest signal of Brown’s dwindling authority over former Blairite Ministers came when David Blunkett told the Prime Minister he should scrap ID cards, the same David Blunkett who first mooted the idea in 2001.
Whilst it’s understandable that former Cabinet colleagues of the Prime Minister are disillusioned with the state Labour is in, they still have an important duty to represent and stand up for their constituents in the Commons. Of course, low participation in the Commons doesn’t prevent ex-Ministers from claiming expenses or enjoying the perks of a high media profile. But it does prevent them from properly representing their hard-working constituents at the time of the greatest economic crisis for a generation.
I just hope they don’t take any advice from John Prescott. When asked why he doesn’t speak in the House his spokesman replied: “John decided that when he stood down from the Cabinet he would never speak out against the Government. That's why he doesn't speak in the House. He is sticking to his pledge to stay loyal". I’m not sure how loyal his impression of the Prime Minister’s YouTube gurn (smile) was in front of dozens of cameras. It appears loyalty and a work ethic are attributes the Parliamentary Labour Party is finding in very short supply.