The overwhelming majority of Labour MPs, 176 of them, have voted in favour of renewing the emergency coronavirus legislation that extends significant powers to the government until October. 21 did not: an unusual coalition on the opposition benches that we have seen before. As I wrote in a December article, “Labour’s Covid rebels are not breaking the whip for the same reasons”, Labour critics are brought together in the ‘no’ voting lobby with varying motivations.
Richard Burgon and Bell Ribeiro-Addy of the Socialist Campaign Group, for example, opposed the restrictions towards the end of last year because they were deemed not tough enough, while Emma Lewell-Buck and John Spellar take quite the opposite line, supporting a risk management over risk avoidance approach to the pandemic. Andrew Gwynne falls into another category: his Burnhamesque key objections were lack of government support and perceived incoherence in the rules.
All of these same rebels were seen again in the ‘no’ lobby yesterday. The arguments put forward by members on the Labour left had changed, however. So far, a proposed ‘zero Covid’ strategy has dominated their interventions. Unlike on the Tory benches, there has been little talk from opposition MPs about the extent of government powers awarded during Covid (partly because the Labour leadership has not wanted to be seen to engage in inappropriate politicking during a pandemic; partly because voters do not seem bothered). This has started to change.
The policing of the Sarah Everard vigil represents a turning point: Ribeiro-Addy made this explicit in her contribution to the debate, which focused on women being denied civil liberties as a result of police decisions that were attributed to the imprecise Coronavirus Act. All of this makes for an interesting study of Labour dynamics and Covid arguments, though the Labour whip and lower-than-expected Tory rebel numbers means the result is unaffected, and the Act was renewed after a short debate.
The House of Commons has risen for recess over Easter and MPs will return on April 13th. There is still plenty to discuss, however. I am told that Labour intends to keep applying pressure over Boris Johnson’s Downing Street flat refurbishment. Rachel Reeves used both of her Cabinet Office questions on this topic, and Sarah Owen has put detailed questions to the Cabinet Secretary in a letter. Elsewhere, Labour also has reason to be nervous: the first Hartlepool poll shows a very tight race, with 2019 Brexit Party voters breaking for the Tories.
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