Whilst the message of the Labour leadership has been that MPs should return to Parliament today if they can (the images of empty Labour benches would not, it is felt, give a good impression), several Labour members have said that they have no plans to return to Parliament today for the tributes to Thatcher being made today. For many Labour MPs, that would be a step too far.
John Healey has written at length about his reasons for staying away in a piece this morning, arguing that:
“Parliament is being used today for narrow political gain by the Prime Minister, as a platform for his Party’s ideology not just eulogy. He gave himself away on Monday. After properly measured reactions from Miliband, Clegg, Blair, Brown and Major late in the afternoon David Cameron issued an “updated tribute” alongside his announcement about recalling Parliament: “Margaret Thatcher didn’t just lead our country, she saved our country … Taking on the union barons. Privatising industry. Unleashing enterprise. Rescuing the economy. Letting people buy their council homes …she took a country that was on its knees and made Britain stand tall again”. This is partisan, divisive and diminishes the Prime Minister’s Office. He’s wrong to recall Parliament, and wrong to hijack it in this way. I will play no part and I will stay away, with other things to do at home in the constituency.”
Healey also argues that the “debate” in Parliament today is likely to be no sort of debate at all. It’s hard to disagree. Other Labour MPs who have said they’ll be staying away include John Mann, who told the Telegraph he’d be at the dentist’s (adding “I do not know why we are wasting taxpayers’ money on an additional session”) and Ronnie Campbell who said “Some MPs might think it is their duty to be there. I certainly do not. Her legacy here was the destruction of thousands of jobs”.
Amongst those who will be attending today, there will be tension within the Labour ranks about what it is appropriate to say. Whilst few Labour MPs had many positive things to say about Thatcher during her time as PM – or since – the response of the party as a whole has been remarkably restrained so far. However that can’t possibly be expected to last through today’s debate. One of Labour’s longest serving MPs David Winnick has already said that he thinks it’s right to criticise Thatcher’s record in the house. Over at Labour Uncut Kevin Meagher has made a compelling case along similar lines. Making the opposite case, David Blunkett – no fan of Thatcher after opposing her so thoroughly in the 1980s – argues that turning the debate today into a “slanging match” would be harmful to Labour. There are valid points on both sides – but it’s possible to criticise without turning an event into a slanging match. Even in the hot headed confines of the commons.
A Labour spokesperson has said that “It is possible to disagree, with respect. Ed Miliband has made his position clear. We expect people to take note of that” – although no formal note has been sent to Labour MPs on how they should react today. Miliband is right to say that it is possible to disagree with respect, but it is also possible to criticise and examine a record, with respect. I hope to see Labour MPs doing that today. To avoid criticism outright might be what the Tory benches want to see, but it would also be dishonest – especially when the country is facing something at least as damaging as Thatcher’s government again today.