Labour MPs put internal divisions on public display again

The anti-Corbyn camp told us for two years that electoral advance was impossible under Corbyn’s leadership. The majority of Labour MPs were so sure of it that the opened party divisions to full public view with a vote of no confidence against the leader which 75% of Labour MPs supported (including Ruth Cadbury and Seema Malhotra). And yet Labour rise in the polls was the biggest since 1945. Labour had experienced dramatic decline from the moment when Tony Blair became prime minister – the data is undeniable. It reached its lowest point of public support in the election of 2010 (led by Gordon Brown). Five years later Labour lifted itself marginally from a historic low point by just 2% (led by Ed Miliband) but clearly there was no sea change.

But now everyone and his/her dog knows that the MPs and the great majority of the media commentatriat were just plain wrong. Some of them have had the honesty to admit it. They were wrong and so manifestly wrong that some (far from all) have nibbled a bit of humble pie. But many of us suspected that it would not be long before they were up to their old tricks again.

And indeed it didn’t take long. Just seven days into the new Parliament and 50 Labour MPs felt it worth their while to put on a public display of a lack of party unity by putting an amendment to the Queens speech on Brexit. It is a matter of regret and concern one of them was Brentford & Isleworth MP Ruth Cadbury. Ruth and the others knew that what they were doing would display party differences in an overt and therefore damaging way. No one could have had any illusions on that score. They knew that their amendment stood no chance of being passed. They therefore chose to support an amendment which could not pass and which was opposed by the party leader as a way of signalling their position whatever damage it caused the party. This “virtue signalling” augers very badly for Labour unity.

Let’s be clear that the point here is not whether or not Britain should remain within the single market. Different views on that are legitimately held within the Labour and every one has the right to say what they think. The point is rather the manner of expressing those disagreements. The Chuka Umunna amendment stood no chance of passing and the party leader very sensibly instructed Labour MPs to abstain. That left room for proper debate in the party. And so far proper debate is what we have not had. Certainly not in Brentford and Isleworth where Ruth has produced no paper explaining her views on the contentious points concerning the Single Market. As New Statesman journalist John Elledge put it:

So what was the amendment for? If it was an attempt to embarrass the government, it failed because now, for the first time since the election, the headlines are about Labour splits, rather than Tory weakness. If it was to show the strength of the remain faction then, well, it’s demonstrated that it currently has 101 MPs, which is not quite one-sixth of the House of Commons, and only about a fifth of the Labour party. So it’s failed at that, too.

And if it really was about keeping Britain in the single market, I’m not entirely convinced it’ll help there, either. Labour’s position has so far been helpfully incoherent: the leadership is Eurosceptic, its support base largely isn’t, so everyone seems to have quietly agreed not to talk too much about it.

That may have infuriated those of us who feel strongly about Europe – but being all things to all men also allowed the party to pull in 40% of the vote last month. More importantly, it left the party with the flexibility to respond to events and changes in the public mood, rather than tying it to a particular position that might just end up dragging it down.

Now that phase might be over. The amendment forced Jeremy Corbyn to tag himself as a Eurosceptic and sack some of the remainers still sitting on his front bench. The pro-European forces look weaker than ever – and after a mere three weeks of unity, the Labour party is split once again.

So what was all this meant to achieve, exactly? (The rebel Brexit amendment didn’t change anything except Labour’s unity)

Ruth explained her vote as follows:

Before the election I voted against triggering Article 50 on leaving the EU. During the recent election campaign I made an explicit commitment to the voters in Brentford and Isleworth that I would do all in my power to secure a Brexit settlement that secured jobs, rights and environmental protections. I received strong support for my position from my constituents, particularly young people voting for the first time and many others who voted Labour for the first time. It was a key reason my vote, the Labour vote, increased by over 10,000.

Therefore I had no doubt that I had to support the amendment moved by Labour colleagues with cross-party support today. The amendment ruled out withdrawing from the EU without a deal, sought a Parliamentary vote on the final negotiations and proposed to remaining in the Customs Union and Single Market. Only then can we protect jobs, trade and certainty for business, as well as protecting the rights of EU citizens, with reciprocal rights for UK citizens.

This is a point of principle for me and I felt bound to honour the commitment I had made to voters. I was aware that, as I was breaking the Whip, I could not retain my front-bench role. I have hugely valued working as part as Jeremy Corbyn’s front bench team under Shadow Housing Secretary, John Healey.

This explanation falls short of understanding the nature of political processes. It is not enough to agree with the sentiment of a motion in order to vote for it. In the real world such things as timing and likelihood of success and unity of action also have to be taken into account. The failure to consider any of these means that the explanation is entirely spurious. Fortunately Ruth’s ex-boss, Shadow Housing Secretary John Healey (no Corbyn acolyte), had the good sense to abstain. Fortunately also 81% of Labour MPs had the same good sense. That is quite a difference from the disruptive and destructive vote of no confidence in the party leader which 75% of them supported in June 2016. It is however a matter of great regret that Ruth felt impelled to make a public display of her disagreement with the leadership on both occasions even though the number of Labour MPs willing to put party differences on display in this way had fallen from 75% to 19%. This is not a stance that will do anything positive for Labour’s chances in the next general election.

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