Starmer’s ‘abstentionism’ treads fine line between election viability and party unity | Sienna Rodgers

Keir Starmer has been accused of adopting an “abstention strategy”. This claim is denied by those close to the leadership, but you can see why it is being made: on two controversial government bills that have recently been presented to the House of Commons, as well as on disputed coronavirus rules such as the 10pm hospitality curfew, Labour MPs have been instructed not to vote at all. These whipping decisions have left Tory rebels confused or frustrated, as they cannot defeat the government without Starmer’s backing, and they have led to Labour losing 10 of its frontbenchers. Many party members are wondering whether this is lack of leadership, a clever long-term strategy, or timidity before an 80-seat Tory majority.

The overseas operations bill saw 18 Labour MPs defy the whip. The government-proposed legislation seeks to exempt British armed forces from prosecution for actions overseas. But the rebels, all drawn from the party’s left and including a number of key figures from the last leadership, argued that it would flout international human rights law and effectively decriminalise torture. The shadow cabinet member leading on this area, John Healey, basically agreed: he said it “creates the risk that the very gravest crimes go unpunished”, and called into question Britain’s “moral authority”. Yet Labour did not vote against the bill at second reading, and three junior shadow ministers lost their frontbench posts.

Defiance of the Labour whip ramped up the next week for the covert human intelligence sources bill, otherwise known as the “spycops” bill. Twenty Labour MPs voted against it at second reading, then 34 broke the abstention whip at third reading. This was the big one: seven frontbenchers quit, including shadow ministers Dan Carden and Margaret Greenwood. Again, the rebels complained that the legislation would fly in the face of basic rule-of-law principles, as it allows the agents of informants of MI5, police forces and other bodies including the Food Standards Agency to commit criminal offences without putting any limit on those offences in the bill itself. This has led Amnesty to warn that it could give them “a licence to kill”.

National security is the thread that runs through both these bills, and that is no coincidence. There is a strong electoral strategy factor in these whipping arrangements, as the leadership sees the votes like this: the government easily get its business through thanks to an 80-seat majority; the only way to change this situation and prevent such concerning legislation from passing is if Labour wins the next general election; the only way Labour can win is if the impression of voters that the party does not defend or prioritise national security is quashed; the only way to convincingly overturn this perception of Labour is to abstain on these votes. This line of thought is one key explanation.

But the similarities between the two bills can be easily overstated. In fact, the leadership sees them quite differently: while the overseas operations bill aims to fulfill a Tory manifesto pledge on vexatious claims against the armed forces (which Labour does not think the legislation actually does, as it protects the Ministry of Defence more than anyone else), the covert human intelligence sources bill would be needed under any government. This leads Starmer to believe that abstaining on this legislation means he is offering responsible opposition. The Labour leader also, crucially, believes that putting on a statutory footing the guidelines to allow agents to become involved in criminal conduct is simply the right thing to do. This is a QC, remember.

One prevailing suspicion on the party’s left is that Starmer is perfectly happy to see the backs of frontbenchers such as Carden, who looked somewhat out of place in a shadow Treasury team alongside Pat McFadden and Wes Streeting. But this theory meant some were scratching their heads last week, wondering why Starmer was going to such lengths to keep MPs in line: he delivered a lengthy speech over Zoom on Monday evening, met with concerned MPs individually to persuade them in the following days, and successfully prevented a number of resignations on the afternoon of the covert human intelligence sources bill vote by agreeing to campaign more vociferously on trade union issues. Why make such efforts? A source explained: “Keir’s stuff about party unity is genuinely true. He really believes that divided parties don’t win elections.”

The frontbench reshuffle has nonetheless been convenient for Starmer: one of the leadership’s favourite media performers, former National Union of Students president Streeting, has become shadow schools ministers; while Labour’s Treasury team is more congruent with “soft left” MPs James Murray and Abena Oppong-Asare in place. These are key positions under Starmer’s leadership: he is not keen at all on giving the impression that he is comfortable with school closures, which were omitted from his circuit-break plan; and the fiscal responsibility mission of Bridget Phillipson is seen as key to winning voters’ trust in the run-up to 2024.

These resignations represented a key moment for Labour’s internal politics, and for the parliamentary left’s strategy, as some stayed and others called it quits. As for the Labour leadership’s view of the drama, the way that the shadow cabinet interacts with backbenchers is developing, but there is no sign of change to the overall approach. For the sake of party unity, the Labour leadership did not want the rebellions to take place – but for the sake of electability and coherence of message, they’re not entirely unhappy that they did.

• Sienna Rodgers is editor of LabourList

The Guardian

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