1 December 2020

Abstaining on Covid tiers is not clever politics, it’s a dereliction of duty

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It may have somehow escaped the notice of this site’s readers, but on October 15 the Labour Party lost two left-leaning frontbenchers, Dan Carden and Margaret Greenwood, due to the party’s parliamentary position on the MI5 bill. It was the same earlier in September, when three junior frontbenchers resigned after votes on the Overseas Operations Bill.

Both bills essentially seek to protect agents of the state from prosecution for crimes committed in the name of the state’s goals. But what is interesting here is not so much the substance of the debate in left-wing circles, or even some subtle Kreminology that reveals deeper lessons about Labour’s never-ending factional struggle. It is, rather, that both were rare examples of resignations over the absence of a political position, rather than the position itself. For in each case, rather than provoke a substantive internal debate, Labour simply abstained.

I will not mince my words: abstaining is a deplorable tactic at the best of times; an insufferably convoluted position that never advances a substantive political argument. In fact, it is the antithesis of political argument and should, even on utilitarian realpolitik grounds, only ever be considered in a very select number of cases. Those cases basically boil down to issues that create or unsettle delicate party management challenges whilst at the same time barely attracting a ripple of wider public attention.

Now, it is quite possible that the two instances mentioned fall into this category, though Labour has already reversed its stance in the case of Overseas Operations. Yet having developed this abstention habit, Labour now intends to test it to destruction. Because whilst there are many things that can be said about the statutory instrument on the Government’s three tiers of Covid-19 rules, insignificant it most certainly is not. Rather, it is a vote that will inexorably affect the lives and livelihoods of every citizen in England, quite literally overnight.

Sometimes those of us a little too close to Westminster like to overthink these things, so try to imagine explaining this position to somebody with only a passing interest in politics. When faced with a decision that will determine how everyone in England lives their life until at least February, the Labour Party is saying “pass”. It really is as unacceptably weak and simple as it sounds.

Yet let us briefly indulge the too clever by half sentiment that leads people in this direction. Nearly all abstentions emerge from the same consideration that, when you price in the political consequences of taking a firmer position, it appears the least bad option. That draws upon a second principle that nobody really pays attention to parliamentary votes anyway, so we can avoid the party management issues and explain our reasoning outside the binary hothouse that is the House of Commons chamber.

Well, yes, sort of – its certainly true that very few votes truly hold the British people’s collective imagination (though the utter chaos on the Conservative benches might suggest that is less accurate in this case). Yet the strategic significance of parliamentary votes, like the strategic significance of policy and just about every form of political action, must be viewed through that messaging lens. For the main effect of parliamentary votes is to shape and constrain the messages you can credibly communicate about its associated issue. That is why abstaining on Covid-19 is way more politically problematic than abstaining on the MI5 bill. The latter is a one-day story, the former an every-day one.

The counter to this is to suggest the other options remain worse. We can dispense quickly with opposition – there is no way Labour wants to be associated with the public health catastrophe that course might unleash. Still, the abstainer argument continues, supporting the Government means sharing in the totality of their current position, which is worse. I do not for one second dispute that would be sub-optimal, but in a curious parliamentary asymmetry, the politics rarely play out like this with the public. On the contrary, Governments always own their position exclusively – people barely remember the Tories supported the Iraq war, nor did it unduly constrain their criticism of how it panned out after the fact.

Moreover, in messaging terms, it is simply easier and less defensive to say “yes but” when asked about Government support, than it is to field question after question about the weakness of abstaining on matters of such significance. This should alarm the Labour leadership because, as I have written previously, both the Tories and Labour left refuseniks have tellingly aligned on indecisiveness as an effective personal attack on Keir Starmer.

Which brings us, finally but inevitably, to Brexit. Understandably, Starmer seems keen to nix an excess of Remainer-ism as a lingering brand issue and thus – allegedly – intends to whip the parliamentary party to vote for a deal if and when it emerges. Given the precedent he might set tonight, all I can say to that is: good luck. But I would go further still: the problem with Labour’s handling of Brexit under Jeremy Corbyn was not that the party ended up seeming too sympathetic to Remain but that it never, not even during the election, took a clear position. In short, it was a parable of the perils of political abstinence.

Labour may well end up backing a Brexit deal. But tonight’s vote shows it has not yet truly learnt the strategic lessons its Brexit travails reveal.

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Alan Lockey is a former adviser to a Labour MP.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX