Why Labour should review its strategy of abstention on second reading

Lloyd Russell-Moyle
© David Woolfall/CC BY 3.0

In the aftermath of the shock election defeat of 2015, Harriet Harman determined that the electorate had spoken and that we should respect their wishes and abstain on the now infamous welfare bill. In doing so, many members and Labour voters believed we left behind a core Labour value of protecting the most vulnerable in society.

Those who abstained on the bill will point out that it was a second reading and that we had the opportunity to amend at later stages. They would say that if we failed to amend the bill, we could oppose at the third reading. But we had the opportunity to do that either way.

A second reading vote is asking whether the bill is aligned to our values – it is not asking whether legalisation on this area is needed. Unfortunately, to those outside of parliament the intricacies of procedure are ignored, with the headlines instead reading: “Labour fails to oppose welfare bill”. 

Two weeks ago, I broke the whip for the first time in my parliamentary career when I voted against the overseas operations bill. The British Legion, Amnesty International and countless other NGOs opposed the bill but a strategic decision was made for Labour to abstain on the bill.

I understand the desire to be more strategic. At times Jeremy (and myself) fell into some of the culture war traps the Tories laid for us. We should have our values and stand up for them, but that doesn’t mean opening ourselves up for attacks on all sides. Progressive patriotism à la “cool Britannia” or families values in all their diversity are important areas to claim as Labour. But we will never out-Tory the Tories.

Within hours of us abstaining on the overseas operations bill the Conservatives sent an email to supporters, saying:

“Just yesterday Sir Keir Starmer asked his party to rediscover its patriotism. But today Labour refused to back our bill to protect our soldiers and veterans, despite tens of thousands of you demanding they do the right thing. Proving that we are still the only party who will deliver on its promises to our troops.”

Similar messages were posted across social media blasting us for being anti-veterans. John Healey MP did a fantastic job of countering these claims, as did backbenchers like Dan Jarvis MP, but they were overshadowed by our abstention. If the bill was as bad for veterans as we said, why abstain? We were in effect squeezed on both sides, and it looked as if we supported nobody. 

A failing of leaders can be to try to overcompensate for the perceived failures of their predecessors. Jeremy saw the failing of Harriet to take a principled stand on the welfare bill and rightly sort to reverse that, but how far did the pendulum swing?

Initially Keir seemed not to have fallen into this trap and took a principled stand by opposing the second reading of the immigration bill, despite acknowledging the need for a bill on immigration. Yet in recent weeks, Keir – in trying to break from Jeremy’s style – is attempting to swing the pendulum back the other way. The strategy of abstention on second reading needs to be reviewed: if Labour believes the face of the bill is not acceptable to be law, we should oppose it. 

If we are to be a successful opposition, our vote must follow our voice (as the parliamentary dictum states). We win ourselves no supporters by sitting on the fence.

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