So Theresa May’s Government manages to stagger on: it passed its Queen’s Speech without amendments, but lurched out of the vote looking even weaker than it had going in. Having conceded an amendment on access to NHS-funded abortions for women from Northern Ireland before it reached the floor, and facing open dissent from her own backbenches, this coming parliament looks bleak for May. Labour frontbench pressure on public sector pay and social services has even led to backbench Tories cutting their ties with austerity and demanding action from the Government. Passing the Queen’s Speech has kicked that can down the road for May until the next Budget – but she cannot delay such a reckoning forever.
Despite the failure of the Labour frontbench’s anti-austerity amendment to pass – always expected – the leadership will be buoyant. They have managed to set the terms of the debate, and likely the tone for the parliamentary session. The debate also made certain things obvious about the parliamentary opportunities for the party in the run-up to the next election, which will now need to work in tandem with the party’s wider “election footing” and orientation to national campaigning.
The clearest is that backbenchers count. Stella Creasy’s abortion access amendment, which built on long years of cross-party campaigning on a manifest injustice, only scared the Government into submission because parliamentary arithmetic has now strengthened the hand of backbench MPs. Effectively, the opposition need seek out only seven Tory rebels to throw a major roadblock in the Government’s legislative programme. On justice issues, or issues which command substantial cross-party support, backbenchers may now be able to substantially alter Government plans. For instance, is it possible – if there is an anti-austerity consensus emergent – to use such amendments to roll back the closure of women’s refuges in the forthcoming domestic violence bill?
Such cross-party work can be taken too far: it is urgent Labour doesn’t allow the Tory party to anoint a successor to May by agreeing to a few token reforms to signal a break from her style of conservatism. The whole Tory party voted merrily for austerity for years, and must be made to own it. But that style of targeted work is infinitely preferable to the bloviating self-regard of Chuka Umunna, whose amendment on the single market was roundly defeated, but not before giving succour to those who would eagerly see the party’s civil war reignited. Certainly there is a need for discussion on Brexit, but it is ill-served treated as another means of advancement for the limelight-hungry member for Streatham, who seems to take every opportunity to exacerbate arguments within the party. Comfortingly for Team JC, the rebellion was small, and serves to further isolate Umunna’s faction in the party – and puts paid to any notion he should be taken into the shadow Cabinet.
Indeed, the contrast between Creasy and Umunna during yesterday’s debate is telling: neither are loved by Corbynites, and neither has much affection for the leadership. Yet Creasy used her parliamentary nous to turn fire on the Tories in a constructive manner; Umunna looked like a pound shop Macron acting as a PLP wrecking ball. But it is deft parliamentary action, now, which is essential to isolating the Government further. Not only does May have to deal with a newly energised Lords – unrestrained by the convention which compels them to respect the manifesto commitments of majority governments – Labour should assert their rights in the makeup of select committees and public bill committees to call May’s Government to heel. A minority government has no automatic right to a majority on either kind of committee, and Labour should use this weakness to scrutinise, amend and put forward its red lines on Brexit legislation. As currently outlined, the coming Brexit legislation gives the Government great and unscrutinised powers: this is an opportunity to put a yoke on May’s autocratic tendencies.
Labour’s “permanent election footing” combines both parliamentary orientation with the promises of energised Labour presences in every constituency, on the frontline of social struggles. The parliamentary obstacles already loom large to the Government, and over the coming session they may come to seem insurmountable. The problem now facing Labour is how to unite parliamentary opportunity and national campaigning to build an insurgent campaign to a government-in-waiting, whether an election comes in six, 12, 18 months’ time. Only by uniting those two orientations, and pinning the suffering of the last near-decade where it belongs – the Government benches – can they succeed. It is a golden opportunity.
James Butler is senior editor at Novara Media
James Butler is senior editor at Novara Media
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