Tuesday 29 December 2020

Playing games


One of the favourite games played by opposition parties in the House of Commons is to attack other opposition parties by accusing them of voting against something they’ve previously claimed to support or voting ‘with the Tories’. Labour’s apparent policy of abstaining on any opposition motion not proposed by themselves makes them an easy target for accusations of being unwilling to vote for what they claim to support. It’s a simple way for another opposition party to generate a tweet or two, repeated and amplified by supporters on social media, but whether it has much impact on voter opinion is another question entirely. It’s probably more confirmatory than an influential agent of change.

It’s underpinned by a parliamentary system which is unfit for purpose in the contemporary world, whose business is largely set and constrained by the executive arm of government, and which reduces everything to a simple question of ‘ayes’ and ‘noes’ (the word ‘yes’ being a tad too modern for the honourable members to cope with). We will have a classic example of this tomorrow when parliament is due to vote on the government’s comprehensive plan to erect new trade barriers with the EU. The issue is a complex one, but will be presented (and voted on) as a simple matter of ‘this deal or no deal’. There are, though, many opposition members who believe that the best answer is ‘neither’ (Tory MPs who share that view having largely been purged by Johnson last year). Abstention is an option, but there is no way of distinguishing between an abstention as a way of saying neither and abstention as a way of expressing apathy or indifference. And abstention will always be presented by others as being a cop-out.

I don’t envy the MPs who have to make a call on this tomorrow. The Johnson deal is clearly better (for which read ‘less bad’) than no deal, but voting for the deal means aiding and abetting the biggest assault on freedom of movement, freedom of trade and international co-operation which has been seen in generations. Labour’s opposition to a no deal seems likely to drive them to support what will become, as a result, a Labour-Tory Brexit, something of which others will no doubt constantly remind them as the consequences become clearer in coming months and years. The SNP seem determined to vote against, given that Scotland clearly voted against any sort of Brexit. It’s a brave stance, which others will no doubt use to accuse them of supporting a no deal exit. Those who decide to abstain will, for years to come, be accused of not being able to take a clear position on one of the most important votes in decades. The detail and the principles involved will rapidly be lost in the fog of propaganda.

It would be comforting to think that all this might propel at least some of them to start thinking about parliamentary reform, not least in finding ways to record the nuances of different positions in the final decisions taken. If ‘taking back control’ meant anything at all, it would surely mean strengthening parliamentary democracy, yet the whole Brexit process has shown how weak and ineffective a legislature which is subordinate to the executive can be. It can’t even set its own agenda. There is little cause for optimism, however. The honourable members are too comfortable playing their games within the constraints set for them, and besides, the main opposition party clings to the belief that it will be their turn to govern eventually, and the last thing they would want to deal with is a powerful and effective legislature. They fully deserve their share of the blame for what is about to happen.

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