Wednesday 13 November 2013

It's Time to Scrap Pairing

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.


Tony said...

Can't agree with this. It's a perfectly sensible system set up to prevent this sort of thing:

It allows MP's votes to still 'count' without them being physically present. Which is something that should be accommodated in this day and age. If you got rid of pairing you'd have to bring in absentee voting (via smart technology?) which would achieve the same thing at much greater cost.

Tom Griffin said...

This may sound harsh, but if Labour are trying to convince the country that they are campaigning all out against things like the bedroom tax, then those are exactly the kind of scenes they need.

Anonymous said...

I thought it was one of the things we paid them to do? Not really physically demanding is it?

Tony said...

"Not really physically demanding is it?" Not only is it physically demanding, it is physically impossible to be abroad on commons business (as part of a select committee, say) and vote in the commons. Pairing deals with that conundrum, among many others.

If the Tories called for maternity leave to be cancelled people would be up in arms. A call to end pairing is a call to end maternity leave for MPs.

Pairing is a successful system that deals with people being unable to attend commons and yet have their vote still 'count'. I really can't see the problem.

matw2 said...

Tony, as a person not particularly enamoured with politics, the most important thing I expect of an elected MP is that they take part in national votes. In fact, that's really the only thing that I expect them to do (all the constituency surgeries are a bonus if they achieve anything, but the votes are the part that defines their job).

If I found out that my Labour MP was prevented from voting on a national issue because his Conservative counterpart didn't turn up I'd be mightily peeved!

So even if it costs more, if it allows more elected MPs to represent the views of their constituents then absentee voting is something worth investing in.

Anonymous said...

Pairing is perfectly acceptable if it is transparent. Douglas Alexander explained yesterday on his blog exactly where he had been and what the pairing arrangement was.

Without that transparency there is a great deal of hay to be made by other parties, and who is to know whether Jim Murphy or Anas Sarwar for instance were paired or just couldn't be bothered?

Stuart said...

This pairing incident will have given people the impression that Labour MPs are for the most part no different to MPs from the other neoliberal parties – that they are corrupt, callous, disengaged from the concerns of everyday life for ordinary people, and that they consider the bedroom tax of no great "political importance". As this is a pretty accurate impression, we can say that this is the one good thing to have come out of the affair.

David Boothroyd said...

Regular pairing, where government MPs have a standing arrangement with opposition MPs not to vote if the other is away, stopped in December 1996 (due to cheating by the Conservative whips) and has never restarted.

Ad hoc pairing of MPs from either side who happen to be on duties away from Westminster is really nothing to complain about, because it doesn't affect the result of any vote if it's done properly. It might be better if it was publicly recorded; in the past, this information used to be published.

Tony said...

"If I found out that my Labour MP was prevented from voting on a national issue because his Conservative counterpart didn't turn up I'd be mightily peeved"

No, that's not how it works. That's not how it works at all. Nobody is prevented from voting by pairing. You need to study the subject more closely. You don't pair with a random MP. You pair with an MP who is in the same boat as you, incapacitated or overseas or otherwise unable to vote.

It is the equivalent of ringing up a tory and saying, "you're ill, I'm ill, let's not knock ourselves out and struggle to westminster...let our votes cancel themselves out.

You only pair with someone who is in the same boat as you (illness-wise), not some randomly assigned opposition partner.

Not sure how much clearer I can make this.

Tony said...

"who is to know whether Jim Murphy or Anas Sarwar for instance were paired or just couldn't be bothered?" ask them via the many means available and I guarantee they will tell you.

Tony said...

Relevant to this: Maternal leave etc.