Instead of holding the Government to account the party has abandoned opposing Tory plans to leave the EU
What is happening to the Labour Party? Last Thursday, two unrelated events prompted me to mull over this question.
The first was at Sheffield Hallam University. I was on a platform with other politicians taking questions from a student audience. A local Labour MP was having the normal go at me about tuition fees. Fair enough — though I noticed he omitted to mention Labour’s own role in introducing tuition fees, and then trebling them on its own watch.
No, the moment Labour’s malaise really struck me was when this MP started speaking about the vote last week in the Commons on Article 50. He displayed none of the intelligence or humility of Keir Starmer, the shadow secretary for exiting the EU, who disarmingly confessed to the gathered MPs how difficult the issue is for Labour. Instead, in Sheffield this MP started to deliver a sanctimonious lecture to the Ukip and Conservative panellists, berating them for placing immigration above the economy in the Brexit talks.
I couldn’t contain myself. Irascibly, I interrupted his pro-European sermon to remind him that he’d just got off a train from London having voted with Douglas Carswell, Michael Gove, John Redwood and other zealous Brexiteers. How could he claim he was representing the interests of the youngsters in the audience having given his support to Theresa May’s uncompromisingly hard Brexit, yanking the UK out of the single market altogether?
I don’t believe that it would have been a betrayal of democracy if MPs had voted against the Government last week. All that would have happened, once the splenetic outrage of the Brexit-supporting press had passed, is that the Government would have been forced to come back to MPs with a more moderate, workable approach to Brexit which would then have received their support. MPs would not have blocked Brexit but they would have blocked hard Brexit. So it is pretty rich for Labour MPs to deliver pious homilies to other parties about the dangers of hard Brexit.
A few hours later I was talking to a jubilant Liberal Democrat candidate who had just secured an astonishing local council by-election victory in one of Labour’s oldest strongholds: Brinsworth and Catcliffe ward in Rotherham, near Orgreave.
The battle of Orgreave, between strikers and the police at the height of the miners’ strike in 1984, still reverberates with controversy today and occupies a special place in the history of working-class struggles which sustain the Labour movement. The symbolism of Orgreave now being represented by a Lib-Dem Councillor is difficult to exaggerate. It’s just not supposed to happen.
But it did. And Labour MPs filed through the lobbies to support a hard Conservative Brexit too. So what on Earth is going on?
When I asked the jubilant Lib-Dem councillor what his explanation was for his victory, his answer was simple: “People round here just feel totally taken for granted by Labour.” For decades the Labour Party has represented vast swathes of northern England. I am the only non-Labour MP in South Yorkshire — a dot of yellow in a sea of red. For much of that time the woes of the north were repeatedly blamed on Westminster, and especially on the industrial ravages wrought by Margaret Thatcher’s Government in the Eighties.
The Coalition Government — and the Lib-Dems in particular — became a convenient whipping boy for Labour. After the 2010 election “austerity” became the catch-all explanation for the world’s woes according to Labour — overlooking the inconvenient truth that the Coalition’s fiscal contraction ended up being less severe than that planned by Alistair Darling and Gordon Brown. Just last week the Resolution Foundation think-tank confirmed that inequality remained largely stable during the Coalition years — not least due to the
Lib-Dem veto of £12 billion of Conservative welfare cuts — while inequality will now shoot up because those Conservative plans are going ahead.
But Labour never let the facts get in the way of a good betrayal narrative. Instead of using their time in opposition after 2010 to work out why they’d lost power, why the public didn’t trust them with the economy, why they had consigned the North to an over-reliance on the public sector, and why they’d failed to regulate the banks before the 2008 crash, the Labour Party chose instead to blame the problems of the world on someone else. No wonder Jeremy Corbyn and Momentum filled the intellectual void when Ed Miliband stood down.
And now, just as many traditional working-class voters in the North feel abandoned by Labour, the party has chosen to abandon its pro-European members too by voting for a hard Brexit. It has created a perfect storm for Labour: in trying to offend nobody it has ended up disappointing everybody.
I know a thing or two about rapid political reversals: during my time as leader the Lib-Dems secured their largest tally of votes ever in 2010, followed by a total drubbing in 2015. Labour’s woes echo the way the Liberal Party lost touch with its voters in the early part of the last century. So I look at them mindful that it can happen to any party.
But the fact is the country urgently needs a proper Opposition to challenge a complacent Conservative Government which is driving the country towards a hard Brexit no one voted for. A proper Opposition would make mincemeat of the tin-eared misjudgments of a Prime Minister who chooses obeisance to Donald Trump over friendship with Angela Merkel.
Tonight, Labour MPs have the chance to regain a little self-respect by pushing through amendments compelling the Government to defer to parliament before any final Brexit deal is done, or when and if the negotiations collapse. If their amendments fail, they should oppose the Article 50 Bill altogether. Labour needs to stand up and be counted before it is too late. For all of our sakes