Voting records, Labour leaderships and anti-politics

Owen Smith is standing for the Labour leadership on a platform well to the left of what anyone would have deemed possible in 2015. From standing firm against Tory spending plans, through pledging a series of specific tax rises, to investing in a British New Deal, to strengthening workers’ rights, it is very obvious which side of the fence he’s on. There’s no Blairite triangulation here – simply a clear, left-wing, domestically-focused programme.

As a result, attacks on Owen have had less to do with his policies and more to do with his background. The attacks on his career before Parliament are deeply unfair and have been rebutted elsewhere. However far to the left we move, we can’t just dismiss anyone who has worked in the private sector as inherently suspect. But many comments about his record in Parliament deserve an answer, too. They aren’t just unfair and misleading. They’re part of a toxic kind of politics, which any true idealist should shun.

Owen in Parliament (or being attacked for being an MP)

The (in)famous vote on the Welfare Bill in July has been covered over and over again, and plenty of people have explained what it meant in detail. Briefly: Labour tabled a ‘reasoned amendment’, which would have killed the Bill while giving specific reasons. It then abstained on the Second Reading because some parts of the Bill (like an increase in apprenticeships) were good. It tried to change the Bill in Committee, and then voted against it at Third Reading. The Tories have a majority, so it would have passed anyway. I completely agree we made the wrong call, and so does Owen Smith: we should have made our opposition clear. But Labour MPs weren’t just letting the welfare cuts through. It was simply trying to change it first before trying to vote it down, good bits and bad alike.

Owen has also come under fire for not voting on the Lawful Industrial Action (Minor Errors) Bill in October 2010. (For context: he entered Parliament for the first time in May 2010.) This was a Private Member’s Bill which aimed to ensure that minor procedural errors in strike ballot notices didn’t invalidate the ballot. Employers have been exploiting the law aggressively in recent years, so I have plenty of sympathy with the idea (though I might argue with bits of the detail). It’s good that a large number of MPs turned up to vote for it. But the Conservative/Liberal Democrat government had a majority of 73 and was never going to give it Government time. As a result, it was never going to actually become law. We don’t know if Owen had a constituency commitment; we don’t know what else he might have had to do at the time. We do know this wasn’t a do-or-die vote. Frankly, we know that if he had an important constituency meeting, he’d have been better employed there.

Owen’s been attacked for ‘going fishing with Tory MPs’. Yes, Owen went on a trip which involved fishing one summer. He’s Vice Chair of the All-party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Angling, raising awareness of issues relating to the sport. You might think that’s not very important, but millions of voters go fishing, and there are hundreds of APPGs covering almost everything. They all include both Labour and Tory MPs: Jeremy Corbyn used to chair the APPG on Mexico, with three Tory MPs and Ian Paisley’s son as officers. It’s hardly surprising if, as part of a group looking at angling, the Angling Trust might have been keen for these MPs to, well, experience angling. And having looked at Owen’s expense records, I can find no evidence he claimed any expenses for the trip.

And on expenses: one of the silliest attacks on Owen has been for claiming more expenses than Corbyn. Owen represents Pontypridd in the Welsh Valleys; Corbyn’s seat is a Tube journey from Parliament. Of course his expenses are higher. He has to travel further and he has to have two bases (if you don’t believe me, remember the Commons regularly finishes at 10.30pm or 7.30pm). If we compare a Welsh MP’s expenses unfavourably with those of the MP for Islington North, we may as well just say London MPs are preferred as leaders. In a country where metropolitan elites are forever mocked, I shouldn’t have to explain why that would be profoundly damaging.

Why it matters

This is dishonest, misleading stuff, easily explained for any who honestly want an answer. More importantly, it’s toxic. It takes the diary trade-offs, policy compromises and parliamentary tactics which being an MP will always involve and uses them to ‘prove’ an MP dishonest, on the take or lazy. Taken to its logical conclusion, it makes an effective legislature impossible. It’s a left-wing version of UKIP.

How do different sports’ concerns, or issues from a country far away, or information about British industries make their way to Parliament? Partly from MPs’ own backgrounds, but mainly from talking to people outside Parliament with an interest or expertise. Select Committees and APPGs are part of that process. You know how oppositions get some concessions from governments in Parliament? They work with their opposite numbers in the Lords. They put forward amendments and they may word them to get some government MPs or peers to back it. They may meet ministers to talk about what concessions they can get if the Lords lets a Bill through. And sometimes they work constructively and consensually on legislation on which no one disagrees much.

If any attempt to compromise, or negotiate, or secure concessions just proves perfidy, we have two choices. Parliament could just grind to a halt. Alternatively, the Government can ram all legislation through with no meaningful scrutiny, no chance to improve it and no opportunity for the Opposition to win concessions. Do you want either of those? Does any sensible person? Do you want a closed Parliament where MPs do nothing but casework or sitting in the chamber?

This sort of campaigning takes the basic work of MPs and actively undermines it. Worse, it depends and builds on ignorance of how Parliament works, when activists should be trying to do exactly the opposite. It’s not just attacks on Owen Smith, and it’s not just Corbynites. Those memes of an empty Commons talking about a debate on [popular/important issue] and a full one talking about [expenses/unpopular issue] – never mind that the first was a snapshot in the middle of a long debate and the second was actually Prime Minister’s Questions? They’re part of the same culture. So is the mindless counting up of how many parliamentary questions (PQs) an MP asked. Never mind their relevance or that a minister doesn’t ask PQs or an MP might chair a Select Committee and do far more for scrutiny that way. Just assume they’re lazy instead.

It’s hardly surprising democracy is held in low esteem if all the key participants and the activists mock it just as much, and with as broad a brush, as any cynical non-voter. Activists presumably believe in the power of politics, and campaigning, to effect change. If so, they should fight within Parliament, and battle for parliamentarians’ support, to their hearts’ content. But don’t feed into a culture which treats all MPs as lazy, all leaders as liars and all deals as betrayals. If you paint politics as a cesspit, don’t be surprised if the public agrees with you. And don’t be surprised if the new politics ends up nastier and narrower than the old.

If I were an MP in today’s EU debate …

“Mr Speaker, I do not intend to vote for the motion put forward by the right honourable Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall). Nor do I intend to support the amendment from the right honourable Member for Brighton Pavilion (Ms Lucas).  But I do accept that they have pointed, whether they intended to or not, to a failing which too many of us in this House have shared.  For too long, we have allowed the case for European co-operation to go by default.  We have allowed too many myths to root themselves in our debate about European co-operation.  Those of us who believe in that project risk reaping a whirlwind in years to come: and the very incoherence of the motion before us exposes how much we have allowed to go by default.

“Perhaps the first thing honourable Members on all sides should recognise is this: the United Kingdom cannot, however many ballot papers its authorities may put together calling for any particular proposal on its relationship with the rest of the EU, impose that proposal upon its twenty-six fellow member states.  This is not a matter of anti-democratic resistance by Berlin, Paris, Brussels or any other capital: it is simply a fact that this country has signed up to treaties, multilaterally negotiated and individually ratified, which impose obligations.  If it wishes to leave, pure and simple, it may do so.  It cannot rewrite the rules to suit itself, with major consequences for its neighbours, and then simply present the document for their signature.

“Any referendum question which proposes to guarantee anything more than our continued membership of, or definite departure from, the European Union is thus a fantasy.  We might almost as well call a referendum on our preferred approach to devolution in Catalonia.  There is no way that France, Germany or anyone else will let us use such a referendum as a means of overriding their own electorates – who, I should add, are very likely to see Conservative Members’ desire for opt-outs and half-way houses as the worst sort of social dumping.  It cannot and will not pass.  Honourable Members do no favours to their own call for an honest debate by touting such a proposal.

“The second thing honourable Members would do well to recognise is this: Britain’s departure from the European Union would not terminate the EU.  However much some Members may wish it away, there will still be an organisation covering most European states, which pools sovereignty for common goals.  Mr Speaker, to believe that our own policies will cease to be affected by the organisation including our most important trading partners, our nearest neighbours and our only direct borders is to believe in fairy tales.  We might be a larger Norway – even a larger Switzerland – but, outside the EU, that is what we would be.

“This sort of fallacy has produced the absurdity where Britain, in return for not joining in an EU initiative, has to beg to be allowed into the very meetings which decide its fate.  I am certainly not calling for British entry to the Eurozone now.  But we cannot delude ourselves.  The Eurozone crisis endangers our economy as much as anyone else’s.  Not being in the euro allowed us the luxury of competitive devaluation in 2009; it may limit the size of our contribution to funding a solution to the crisis today.  But if disaster strikes, it will not stop at the white cliffs of Dover; and not being in the Eurozone means we can do less to stop it from striking.

“Do we wish to be in that position in the Single Market, asking Ireland, or Denmark, or Finland, to put our case in the Council of Ministers as the rules are decided: rules which we must then accept as the price of access to that market?  That is what Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Switzerland do.  Many in this place complain of this or that EU regulation as it is: do they believe that the other members of the Union will do a better job of stopping new ones without Britain at the table?  We might be exempt from the Common Agricultural Policy and Common Fisheries Policy: but, Mr Speaker, does the House honestly believe that these are more important to the British economy than liberalising services – worth 70% of that economy?

“I agree with the Eurosceptics that this is about democracy.  It is about co-operative democracy versus impotent separation.  It is about the right of this country, sitting at the top table in Brussels, to share in decisions which affect us all – and defending that right from those whose dislike of shared decisions runs so deep that they prefer imposed decisions instead.  We have, for far too long, allowed Eurosceptics to capture the language of democracy.  Perhaps they believe that, so long as they keep ministers in London rather than in Brussels, it does not matter that they will be waiting by the fax rather than drawing up the text.

“Mr Speaker, if the House wishes to make our relationship with the EU more democratic, it could more profitably put its own affairs in order.  Our Parliament is strikingly behind the times in scrutinising its government’s actions in the EU.  Where is the campaign to make Ministers more accountable to this House for their decisions in Brussels?  Who lobbies for the importation of the Danish, or Finnish, or Austrian models of scrutiny?  Does the honourable Member for Bury North not worry that his honourable Friends have no input into their negotiating brief from this House?

“Too many of those who want to leave the EU do not really want to do it on democratic grounds at all.  They want separation.  They believe – perhaps they want to believe – that we can and should minimise our involvement with our nearest neighbours; they are willing to sacrifice great influence over all EU rules for the sake of meagre insulation from some EU rules.  Mr Speaker, it is a very poor bargain for this country to strike.

“Mr Speaker, in return for pooling some sovereignty with our neighbours – and sacrificing some formal control over some decisions – we gain enormously in our practical ability to change the circumstances in which we find ourselves.  The European Union requires us to share some formal power, but I can think of few political arrangements which do more to increase this country’s real power over its own destiny – on the economy, on environmental policy, on international trade, on relations with Iran.

“No credible government of this country is likely to support the wilder anti-Europeanism embodied in this motion: as the Foreign Secretary can testify, the most hardened Eurosceptic tends to make the most surprising accommodation to reality on entering office.  The referendum questions are the definition of a false choice.  They would do nothing to settle the divisions in Britain on this issue; they are no substitute for representative democracy doing its work.  They are based on an entirely false set of assumptions about what Britain can and cannot demand; their purchase comes from an entirely false set of assumptions about the nature of our EU membership.  That such a thin set of proposals can be seen as serious proposals shows how many myths pro-Europeans have left to fester.

“I believe it is time for pro-Europeans to nail their colours to the mast.  I accept we have failed to make the case for Europe to many of our fellow citizens.  But we cannot start to do that on the basis of a false set of choices.  Nor can we do it by passing the buck to a referendum and relying on the natural tendency of referendums to favour the status quo.  This is our job: I hope the House will reject the motion and then start doing it.”

Why I’m voting ‘Yes’ to AV

The AV referendum is probably going to be our last chance to express a view on how to choose our MPs for quite some time.  I can’t see the issue coming back for about 20 years.  So if you’re concerned about our democracy (or, indeed, if you’re delighted with it the way it is), the vote on 5 May is a crucial one.

Whichever side wins, one MP will still continue to represent each local area; whichever side wins, the voting system will be almost equally likely to deliver majority governments.  We’re being asked, instead, which of two options is the fairer way of choosing our (single) local MP.

On that basis, in the full knowledge that the question here is AV versus FPTP and independently of the chances of any further reform, I’m hoping for a ‘Yes’ vote – and for what they’re worth, here are my main reasons:

1. With AV, a local MP will better reflect local people’s views

AV will make sure your MP’s views are nearer the real centre of gravity in your local area – and prevent a cohesive minority, who don’t really reflect most people’s views, from taking over instead.

For instance, imagine a seat where the Conservatives win 35% of the vote, Labour win 30%, the Greens win 25% and the Liberal Democrats and Socialists both win 5%.  Leave aside the fact that the Tories only got 35% of the vote: as a matter of pure common sense, looking at the political consensus in this area, would a Tory victory really be a fair reflection of how most people voted?  It would be the same if Labour won 35%, the Tories won 30%, UKIP won 25% and the Lib Dems and English Democrats both won 5%.  In both cases, FPTP delivers the seat to a party who is strongly opposed by most voters: AV would fix that.

2. With AV, no citizen will have to fear voting for their real first choice and getting their last instead

A general election should be your chance to weigh up what different parties offer, look at local candidates and make an honest statement of preference.  It’s the only chance you get to express your opinion on what kind of Britain you want and who you want in charge and, hopefully, have some bearing on the outcome.

But for too many people, elections have stopped being an expression of belief and become a glorified game of chess.  Keeping the enemy out becomes the only aim: voting ceases to function as an expressive act, a positive endorsement, and starts to be a defensive (often grudging) manoeuvre.  And people who might have voted Green, Liberal Democrat or UKIP (or Labour or Conservative, for that matter) end up hiding their true colours and walking away from the polling booth feeling cheated.  This is no way to run a democracy.

3. AV will make our political system a little more open

For better or worse, British voters have been gradually drifting away from the two largest parties.  Labour and the Conservatives barely won 65% of the total vote in 2010; in 1951, they won nearly 97%.  This has happened under a system which actively discourages voting for new parties.  At the last European election, Tory and Labour support fell as low as 43.4%.  Although I doubt we’d see figures quite that low in a general election, I do believe the current voting system is suppressing the real range of British public opinion.

There is an argument that the voting system should guard against a mass of tiny parties making the Commons unworkable: there’s not much of a democratic argument that it should try and stop any new political force from being given expression by the people.  But FPTP preserves our party system in aspic: and if we ever saw a real surge in popular opinion, the voting system would crush it.

We’ve got the proof from the 1980s.  The Liberal-SDP Alliance failed, but not because it couldn’t command mass support (25.4% of voters endorsed them even under FPTP) or because it had no credibility (the Gang of Four had all been Cabinet ministers).  Ultimately, people didn’t believe they could win and didn’t take the risk.  They might or might not have actually done so under AV: but if they had, an Alliance government’s economic policy would almost certainly have been a much better reflection of public opinion than Thatcher’s.  It is very hard to believe that democracy was well served by the actual outcome, whatever your politics.

4. AV will produce governments with a stronger democratic mandate

Even if you want majority governments, their declining electoral mandate ought to worry you – and AV can help there.  AV would, for instance, still have given Labour a majority in 2005.  But Liberal Democrat voters were pretty repelled by Michael Howard’s campaign: most of them would have ranked Labour above the Conservatives.  SNP and Plaid Cymru voters aren’t known for preferring Tory governments.  65% of people voted against Labour in 2005, but it’s almost certain that a majority of people preferred a Labour government to a Tory one: with AV, we’d have known that they did, and that broader (though, yes, less committed) support would have been expressed at the ballot box.

When we do get hung parliaments, we’ll also have a much better idea of what voters want their preferred party to do.  If Liberal Democrat voters in 2010 preferred a Labour-Lib Dem deal, we’d have known about it from their second (third, etc.) preferences: equally, we’d have a better idea of whether the country preferred a Cameron-led government from preference data.  With FPTP, we have no real way of knowing what voters want when no one wins outright: with AV, we do – and so politicians have fewer places to hide.

Finally …

Unless trends change radically, we can expect a number of things to happen under FPTP in the coming years.  MPs will be elected with ever lower levels of public support.  Governments will win majorities with smaller and smaller mandates from the voters – Labour’s 35.2% of the vote in 2005 could just be the start of things to come.  Whether we get a government in line, even roughly, with the people’s wishes will become more and more a matter of luck, electoral geography and how many parties split the vote on which part of the political spectrum.  And by the way, we’ll probably get a few more hung parliaments, whatever the voting system.

AV isn’t perfect and it won’t fix every problem.  But it’s a better and a fairer way of choosing our representatives than the one we’ve got.  MPs will have stronger mandates from their constituents – not a perfect mandate, not the whole-hearted support of everyone in their area, but a reasonably broad base of support in a multi-party system where voters can cast an honest preference.  Governments will rely on broader support than they do now – and because they’ll need to maintain (qualified) support from other parties’ voters, they’ll be wise to govern in a way which reflects that broader support.  And our political system will be better able to give big shifts in public opinion some form of expression, rather than just bottling them up.

If you want to be able to vote with your heart and your head at the same time; if you want governments to listen to a broad swathe of the people; if you want a politics which lets new people and new ideas into the debate: vote ‘Yes’ on Thursday.