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02 Oct 2015

BY Matthew Parsons

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Stephen D’Alfonso: Why backbenchers are key to our aims in this new Corbyn era

Westminster is quiet just now, with MPs from across the political spectrum in Bournemouth, Brighton, Manchester and Aberdeen for the party conferences.

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When they return to the Commons next month, the landscape will look quite different.

 

Two of the three main party leaders who fought the 2015 campaign will be on the backbenches.

 

David Cameron is the only surviving leader of the three big parties.

 

The exception is the SNP, which has gone from strength to strength after winning all but three of the 59 Scottish seats in Westminster.

 

One of the biggest changes has been the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader.

 

Over his 32-year parliamentary career, he has been a rebellious backbencher, serially voting against his leadership from his far left perch.

 

While Corbyn received a huge mandate from members, this shift has clearly discomfited many Labour MPs.

 

It is hard to see how Corbyn can keep the diversity of views in his party cohesive while maintaining the ideals that catapulted him to the top.

 

It seems Labour MPs will be allowed more freedom to vote in line with their beliefs, meaning rebellions are likely to become a trademark of this parliament.

 

This could make it harder to hold government to account or influence policy; for government, they could look to utilise a grouping of moderate Labour MPs to boost its razor-thin majority on key policy areas.

 

On airport expansion, for example, Labour has previously accepted the recommendation of the Airports Commission to build a third runway at Heathrow, echoing industry in calling for urgent action from government.

 

But the new shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, is perhaps Labour’s most vocal opponent of Heathrow expansion. Corbyn is also on record as being against a third runway. We know the prime minister has his own internal dissenters on this issue, not least the Mayor of London.

 

Given the growing cross-party consensus on the backbenches for the need for urgent expansion, it is easy to see how this vote could be won by the government; however, it is a useful illustration of how a divided opposition complicates the political picture.

 

A leftward shift in economic policy from Labour would make it hard for the party to unite in favour of lowering taxes for businesses or consumers with disposable income, despite support for such measures from backbenchers.

 

Amid this uncertainty on the left, we must reflect that the Tories have a majority government, so as long as they remain in-sync, there will be a level of stability. But that majority is slim, and the government will be sensitive to defeat by its own backbenchers on contentious issues such as Heathrow and Europe.

 

A majority government may mean continuity, but if the industry is to achieve our political goals, we need to adopt a few crucial tactics. We have an excellent chance to use parliamentary mechanisms to pressure the government on key issues.

 

It will be vital to work with Labour backbenchers. As the opposition’s policy positions are likely to be decentralised, Labour backbench support could prove pivotal in building consensus in the Commons to achieve our key policy objectives.

 

Stephen D’Alfonso is head of public affairs at Abta

 

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