Forget about the DUP: the 42 days vote is Labour’s ‘pork barrel’ shame

by Stephen Tall on June 11, 2008

That Labour scraped home by just 9 votes in today’s 42 days detention without trial vote is thanks to the votes of the Democratic Unionist Party. The DUP leader Peter Robinson claims their stance was about principle, and nothing to do with any deals they may have been offered by the Government.

Well, maybe… though they’ve not convinced the Lib Dems’ Chris Huhne: “I think it is very much a hollow victory for the government – and at what cost, it sounds like lots of promises have been made – it is pork-barrel politics of the worst kind. I think it is very sad when it comes down to an MPs vote being cast in relation to the spending of public money.”

Whatever you think of the DUP’s decision, and the reasons for it, their decision should not be allowed to blind us to two obvious facts. First, if a ‘pork barrel’ deal over 42 days was accepted by the DUP, it was offered by Labour.

More importantly, while 9 DUP MPs backed the Government’s measure, over 300 Labour MPs did so. This measure would not have passed into law if more Labour MPs had had the backbone to stick up for the liberties of ordinary people. Over at The Independent’s Open House blog, Parliamentary rebellion expert Philip Cowley makes the following telling point:

… it’s worth noting that back in November 2005 [when Tony Blair tried to push through 90 days] the DUP didn’t have the same sort of influence. Then, the Labour rebellion was so large that even if the DUP had voted with Labour, the Government would still have gone down to defeat. So, if the government do emerge victorious tonight, it will also be because, over the last few months, and in private meeting after private meeting, they have managed to persuade just enough Labour MPs that these proposals differ from the defeated proposals in more than just the number of days involved.

Sitting on the backbenches at the moment, there are 49 Labour MPs who voted against their whips in November 2005. Of these, I’d estimate about 30 as being unmoveable. The other 19 or so, however, are open to persuasion. We had yet another concession this morning – and I’d not be surprised to see yet another later during the debate. Last minute concessions can be enough for the waverers. In 2004, when the Commons voted on top-up fees, the Government began the day more than 20 votes behind, only to end up five ahead by end-of-play.

So, once again, we witness the traditional spectacle of Labour MPs changing their views not on the basis of principle but to extract the maximum leverage for their own pet schemes. The DUP’s alleged ‘pork barrel’ dealings may grab the headlines: but this was a Labour proposal, voted for by the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs, with a Labour government offering all sorts of inducements to its own MPs to avoid political embarrassment.