How to make a good thing backfire in a few easy steps. Most Labour Party people and a wavering chunk of the British public think the bedroom tax is as punitive as it is useless. Even those softened up by decades of relentless benefit-bashing and support it would at least expect Labour to be opposed to it, even die-hard Tories. So using Parliamentary time yesterday was good politics. It showed that Labour MPs (well, most of them who spoke anyway) actually, deeply, genuinely cared. Even the hardest of Blairite hearts found compassion still dwelt at the bottom of theirs as Tory members opposite affected disinterest at best, or, at worst, guffawed. It helped show people affected by the bedroom tax - our people - that Labour as a whole were speaking out for them. And it did a good job shoring up the soft-left vote by continuing the "retoxified Tories" strand to the party's campaigning. And despite losing the vote 226 to the Coalition's 252, it was a job well done - at the very least a wider audience have been reminded of the misery the bedroom tax is causing.
But look at the voting figures, it doesn't add up. 226 for Labour's motion, and yet the party sends 257 MPs to the House. Something's amiss. Among the 63 opposition MPs who were not present numbered our 46 absent Labour parliamentarians. What the bloody hell was going on?
It was the P-word - pairing.
The Commons is stuffed full of baffling, nay, alienating customs. Thanks to the unwritten constitution and our monarchy's rude refusal to flush itself down the royal convenience, the Mother of Parliaments is probably the most hidebound, theatrical, and procedurally ridiculous of the world's democratic legislatures. Of course, it wasn't always so. It was a pawn in feudal class struggles against the overweening power of the Crown. And in the Civil War Parliament was a weapon that deposed a king. By motion and musket, Parliament and all its subsequent absurdity fought for and won its right to exist. And there remain traces in the chambers' adversarial seating arrangements, the notion that at all times you face an opponent across the floor, an opponent you seek to permanently undermine and marginalise through the stratagems available to you as parliamentarians. And, over the course of the 20th century, written into the adversarial seating was the common sense of much of that age. On one side was the party of big business. On the other the political voice of the organised working class, and never the twain shall meet.
At least theoretically. The back and forth in the chamber sees more back and forth of an entirely sociable nature away from the camera's eyes. I know from past experience that friendly relations can exist across the divide. I knew of several Tory MPs the ex-boss liked and got on with. There were also a few times a junior minister would reply to constituency correspondence in toe-curlingly ingratiating ways. Perhaps they wanted a brush with the sought after Stoke-on-Trent glamour. The practice of pairing speaks of the sociability existing between our honourable members.
According to Parliament's helpful glossary, it is an informal arrangement sanctioned by the respective Whips' Office that requires one side of the pairing to absent themselves from a vote if their opposite number can't make it. I don't know who IBS pairs with, but as he chose to swan around a Parisian TV studio during yesterday's debate his "partner" did not cast their vote in favour of Labour's motion, as per agreement
This is all custom and practice, as the Labour Whips' office tweeted last night. So it wouldn't have made any difference in the grand scheme of things. Or would it?
The Glossary notes that "pairing is not allowed in divisions of great political importance". And we know why. Labour's ability to turn out the numbers, and the government's shoddy whip operation over Syria demonstrates that if you can get the numbers in, the Tories can be defeated. Clearly, and regrettably, by allowing pairing to take place during yesterday's debate either the Labour leadership was of the opinion that it wouldn't win anyway or, more seriously, didn't believe the bedroom tax was important enough. Just for the record, I don't think that is the case.
It is highly likely that had pairing been disallowed, by hook and by crook Dave would have made sure his MPs were there. But the Syria debacle shows there's a chance internal divisions, recalcitrant LibDems, and efficient mobilisations of Labour Members can defeat the government. And now, because of yesterday's pairing some on the left are asking why their Labour MP stayed away, and on the right hypocritical hay is to be had from gleefully flagging up many leading figures who stayed away from the House. It's a needless own goal and it reinforces the view Labour-types are no better than the Tories. Our party should stop giving the Tory Whip an easy life and make them work for every single vote.
It's time to scrap pairing.