Tuesday 21 July 2015

Understanding Labour's Abstentions

I'm going to have a stab at understanding the gyrations of leadership candidates in recent days around the Welfare Reform Bill and how only 48 Labour MPs voted against it. But because this is the internet a qualifier is necessary. Labour MPs last night should not have sat on their hands, they should have voted against. Not only is it wrong, it's ruinously stupid. And no one in "real life" is going to buy it. Have a think, is there anyone settling down to watch a news bulletin later thinking "nice one Labour. You finally get it and I'm going to vote for you"; or are those same people more likely to say "what a spineless shower"? Yes, the electorate broadly likes the idea of social security recipients getting a kick or several, but that doesn't mean Labour is going to be rewarded for putting the boot in too. Illogical? Yes, but that's politics.

A good rule of playing the game in 2015 is if George Osborne lays a trap and erects a great neon sign that reads "this here is a trap", avoidance is probably the correct way to proceed. In this case, as Andrew Gwynne points out, the Tories had deliberately sugared the nasty pill with 'nice' things like more apprenticeships, help for troubled families, and cuts to social housing rents. Voting against the second reading of the bill means voting against those things too. But come on, that stance is pretty naive. Do you really think the Tories in the present climate are going to score points on cutting rents to people they've successfully painted as council estate detritus? Everything in the bill is overdetermined by cuts. That's what's being reported, that's what "normal" people are seeing. As with so many thing it's about perception, something that new MP Cat Smith gets. Furthermore, 22 Tory MPs also abstained - had the bulk of Labour not done so a morale-shaking defeat might have been inflicted on the government and spun them into crisis instead.

Moving to the leadership candidates, what's been happening here? There is some confusion as the Welfare Reform Bill doesn't deal with the issue of tax credits, which three of the four clearly opposed. Most of the ire, however, has been reserved for Andy Burnham. If his leadership campaign can be distinguished by one thing, it's not passion: it's flip-floppery. How many U-turns and contradictions can one man perform? We've had "Labour spent too much, but I'm not going to apologise for new schools, hospitals, etc.". We've heard him praise the 2015 manifesto as the best one he's ever stood on, only to have him criticise it in hustings as too narrow. He said on Sunday that he'd be happy to have Jeremy Corbyn in his shadow cabinet, only to have it ruled out a few hours later. And then, after abstaining in last night's vote he writes "If I am elected leader in September, I am determined that Labour will fight this regressive Bill word by word, line by line."

To be fair to Andy in this instance, he did qualify that with "if the Government do not make major changes to protect working families, children and the disabled, then, under my Leadership, Labour will oppose this Bill with everything we’ve got". In other words, if the amendments Labour put down on the bill don't get through committee (they're very unlikely to) then Andy will lead his troops through the no lobby when it returns for passage into law. Once again, especially in the context of his less than smooth record, Andy should have paid attention to perceptions.

There is, however, a very good reason why the three abstainers um, abstained that is unrelated to the specifics of this issue. It comes down to party discipline. Whoever wins is going to have to manage the party and ensure the PLP act in a (relatively) disciplined fashion. There are a number of ways this ongoing process can be accomplished, such as balancing out different trends and factions in the shadow cabinet. Ed Miliband, for instance, packed his first shadcab with Blairites not because he was a Blairite but because they were a weighty contingent in the parliamentary party. They had backed his brother by a wide margin and had to be accommodated. As the parliament wore on they were gradually whittled away and replaced by Milipeople. It helped ensure a high degree of party unity and also deferred the expression of divisions to now. An essential tool of management, the incoming leader is going to need to appeal to loyalty to the office and loyalty to the party. Do not underestimate how powerful this is - MPs who abstained last night aren't the only ones who've abided by the whip to do less-than-palatable things. However, for any leader to call on this resource they have to show respect for it themselves. Suppose Andy or Yvette as the two favourites win. They are likely to be victorious off the back of second preference votes and will face a PLP where approximately two thirds didn't nominate them. They are going to have to call on that party loyalty at some point, but it would be much harder for them to do so if they rebelled against the party whip on this occasion. Some readers are going to find this unprincipled behaviour, but it's par the course for parliamentary and party manoeuvres. Think back to Iain Duncan Smith in his time as one of John Major's 'bastards'. How did repeated disloyalty and back bench shenanigan-stirring work out for him when he was leader?

Once again, because it's the internet, this isn't a soft soaping of would-be leaders that excuses their abstention on a crucial political issue but an attempt at understanding why some key political actors do what they do. Understanding, after all, is the route to wisdom.


Will Barton said...

According to William Blake, it's the path ofexcess that leads to the palace of wisdom.

Phil said...

I basically agree, but I think your Verstehen needs go to one stage further - and bring the critique which you bracketed at the top back in. Given that this is a vile Bill which is designed to increase hardship and immiseration, what does it say about the 'main' leadership contenders that they were prepared to abstain for the sake of future manoeuvring within the party?

Everything solid does seem to be melting into air at the moment - it's getting hard for Labour Party leadership contenders to avoid answering the question of who they are actually for (and if it's not the working class, what use they are). Hopeful and scary times - surprisingly so; is it just JC's candidature? Perhaps Brown knew what he was doing when he kept John McDonnell off the ballot.

Speedy said...

"Suppose Andy or Yvette as the two favourites win."

Have you been watching the news?

Phil said...

That bit was written before last night's YouGov poll did the rounds. Despite that, I stand by what I said: I don't think Jez is going to win. However, if he does then there are some interesting times ahead - this blog will have plenty of fodder to chew on.

Anonymous said...

I think we should get one thing straight, abstaining equates to supporting. We now know where the Labour party stands, right next to the most reactionary Tory party since, well maybe the last lot. But a distinctly nasty and remorseless party - add in spineless and pathetic and you have the Labour party.

Speedy said...

"Perhaps Brown knew what he was doing when he kept John McDonnell off the ballot."

Who had of course come to political age over the 80s. It seems like a cycle is repeating, except these are very different times.

There remained an organised labour back in the day, now it is fragmented and principally public sector - which is being rapidly dismantled by Osbourne et al: Cameron "taking on" the public sector is his version of Thatcher "taking on" the unions, with a whimper rather than a bang.

This is a continuation of the SAME WAR, and the Left is losing again.

Of course as you have said, labour is anyone drawing a wage (more or less) but the white collar working class have largely yet to recognise themselves as such and while there is market flexibility they will continue to fail to do so.

So as you say - what is Labour for? Socialism is not Communism - it is making capitalism work for the majority (supposedly, although socialists seem to be terribly naive about how to do so) - yet while the Tories (supported by the media) are winning the argument that they are making capitalism work better for ordinary people THERE IS NO PLACE FOR LABOUR.

Labour has to make a convincing case that they can make the system materially improve the lives of the "strivers" who are the majority of the voters - at the moment the Tories are winning this argument.

Labour blew it big time by appearing aloof to the concerns of the people who actually voted for them - Brown's "bigot" moment was the point at which the Left lost it, and continues to lose it because it continues to believe it. It loathes much of the "labour" it is supposed to support, and at best regards them in a patronising way. While it does so, it cannot claim to represent them - and people see through this because, actually, although they may be "ignorant" they are not stupid.

Thatcher shifted the Tories from being the toff's party to one of working class aspiration - a similar revolution needs to take place in Labour. But this means embracing the people (and their values) that they loathe, just as the posh Tories must have loathed the "loadsamonies".

Otherwise, all is lost - JC may well win as he will be elected by the hard core of members who prefer ideological purity to power. Who prefer to feel morally superior to embracing the ugly reality. These utopians may well go to heaven, but screw the rest... you may end up wondering why you jumped ship Phil.

Bon voyage... ;-)

Boffy said...

What events have also shown is that we desperately need to change the rules for electing Labour Leaders - if indeed we should have such a position. Corbyn has huge support amongst Labour Party members and amongst the public. Yet, he could so easily not even have been on the ballot.

Moreover, as various reports have suggested, if he wins those same rules could allow a handful of MP's to launch a coup against him. It ought to be the case that the Party Leader not even be an MP, but short of that, it ought to be the case that the position is subject to automatic annual election by the whole party in or out of government, and there should be no privileged position for the PLP in making nominations as to who should be on the ballot.

If we have one member one vote in the party it should mean that when it comes to nominations too.

Igor Belanov said...

@ Speedy

Socialism is not 'making capitalism work for the majority'- at best that would be social democracy, though even then it does not encompass the description. Socialists basically believe that capitalism is incapable of 'working for the majority' in the long term and hope to establish and extend non-capitalist sectors of society and common ownership (in whatever form) of 'the means of production'.

As such, Jeremy Corbyn may well be a socialist at heart, but in practice he would historically be regarded as a moderate social democrat in his attempts to defend social rights and more human attitudes to the the less well-off. I would regard his campaign as a little too conservative and not socialist enough. But, irrespective of that, he has clearly tried to build a bridge across the ridiculous division between 'strivers and skivers' that the current ideological background has created, and given that plenty of 'strivers' are currently low-paid benefit recipients, parents or people in insecure employment, there are certainly large numbers of potential voters out there.

I don't think Corbyn will win the leadership election, but his current level of popularity demonstrates the wisdom of him standing. Hopefully it might help to persuade Labour's next leader that they cannot afford to regurgitate Tory assumptions and that they have to do their best to provide a humane alternative. I'm not holding my breath though.