Labour’s ‘motion for a return’: what and why?

Opposition days have become a source of controversy in the early months of the 2017 parliament, with government MPs repeatedly abstaining on Labour motions. Such motions are usually non-binding. However, last week Labour attempted a different approach, tabling what is called a ‘motion for a return’. Andrew Defty explains what happened.

An opposition day debate last Wednesday saw the Labour Party deploy an obscure piece of parliamentary procedure which may force the government into releasing its Brexit impact studies. By means of a little-known procedure called a motion for a return, Labour transformed a non-binding opposition day motion into a binding resolution of the House. Labour’s approach caused some confusion in the House of Commons and had parliamentary observers reaching for a copy of Erskine May in order to determine what exactly had happened and what it meant. This post examines the background to Labour’s parliamentary trap and the implications for the government.

The government’s approach to opposition days

The background to what happened on Wednesday lies in the government’s approach to opposition day debates in this parliament. Opposition days provide a rare opportunity for opposition parties to set the parliamentary agenda. There are 20 opposition days in each parliamentary session. These are usually divided between opposition parties, in the last session Labour had 17 of these while three were allocated to the SNP. Each day is then often divided in two to allow for more subjects to be debated. On Wednesday last week, Labour tabled two motions for discussion, one dealing with armed forces pay and the other on the release of the Brexit impact studies.

Opposition days provide an opportunity for opposition parties to table a motion on a subject they consider to be important. Government ministers must come to the House and respond to the motion, speaking at the beginning and end of the debate. The government may also table an amendment in an attempt to overturn the motion, usually by changing its meaning. There is usually then a vote. Governments with a majority can usually be assured of defeating an opposition day motion, but even if a government is defeated, opposition day motions are non-binding and the government is not required to respond or make any policy changes as a result.

In the current parliamentary session the government has decided to adopt a strategy of not contesting opposition day motions. Although ministers come to the chamber to respond and Conservative MPs participate in opposition day debates, Conservative MPs, presumably under instruction from the Whips, have not been voting against the opposition motion. The reasons for this are not entirely clear, but are almost certainly a consequence of governing without a majority. It certainly saves the government from going to the trouble of marshalling its MPs into the chamber for a non-binding vote which they are likely to lose anyway. It may also be designed to ensure that Labour’s victory in such votes is somewhat pyrrhic. This point was made by the Conservative MP, Peter Bone, following a government defeat on a recent opposition day motion in which Conservative MPs abstained, when he claimed that although the opposition had won the vote, the Conservatives could not be said to have lost.

This strategy of abstaining in votes on opposition day motions has, however, caused some consternation in the chamber of the House of Commons. Following a government defeat on an opposition day motion on universal credit on 18 October, there was criticism from both sides of the House at the government’s decision not to contest the vote in order to enable it to ignore the outcome. The Conservative MP, Sir Edward Leigh, complained that the government’s approach risked reducing the chamber to the level of a ‘university debating society’, adding, ‘what is the point of the House of Commons if we just express opinions for the sake of it? Surely when we vote, it should have some effect.’ The Speaker was also particularly exercised by the government’s apparent neglect of Parliament, noting that, ‘it is blindingly obvious that this is an unusual situation about which there is strong opinion’ and that it would be ‘respectful to the House’ if a minister were to come to the House and explain the government’s thinking.

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Labour’s unavoidable English question

In 2015, the Conservative government implemented ‘English votes for English laws’ (or EVEL) in the House of Commons as a way of responding to the ‘English question’. Labour, by contrast, has had relatively little to say in this area – but were the party to form a government in the near future, it would be required to take some tough decisions. In this post, Michael Kenny assesses the possible routes forward for how Labour might respond to EVEL, in particular, and broader questions about English governance and devolution across the UK.

Brexit and its potential implications saturate British politics. But attention has lately shifted away from some of the complex constitutional questions which were aired in the days and months before the UK’s negotiations with the EU began. These include the thorny issue of how the UK government will handle the very different perspectives on Brexit which are held by the governments of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales – which will move back to the foreground when the government formally requests the consent of the Scottish and Welsh parliaments for the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill currently passing through the Westminster parliament. Whether Labour in Wales and Scotland opt to oppose Brexit will be of particular importance in political terms.

A related, but distinct, issue which all of the main parties will have to consider soon is how those parts of the complex body of coming legislation which affect England in distinct ways, will fare. And this in a context where it is still taken as given, in Westminster at least, that the UK government can represent the interests of the entire UK and England at the same time, even when the current administration depends for its survival upon a small party that is based in Northern Ireland only.

The previous Conservative government introduced a complex and convoluted system – known as ‘English Votes for English Laws’ (or EVEL) – to handle such legislation, and sought to make political capital out of its ability to answer the English question – one of the great Cinderella issues of British politics.

Whether these opaque rules will be enough to deal with the increasingly political character of English national identity is a moot point. But in EVEL and the patchwork model of metro mayors and newly created combined authorities it has created, the government at least has something to say on the subject of English devolution (even if what Theresa May herself thinks about these changes remains a well-kept secret).

Labour, in contrast, seems to have little to say in this area – aside from promising a constitutional convention which feels like a fig leaf, rather than a signal of intent.

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Party conferences and Brexit

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Party conference season presented an opportunity for each of the political parties to set out their responses to the EU referendum result. Unsurprisingly, there were major differences between their respective visions for the post-Brexit landscape. Whilst the Liberal Democrat and Green leaders called for a second EU referendum, and the SNP promised a draft bill for a second independence referendum, at the Conservative conference the Prime Minister vowed to ‘get on with the job’ of negotiating Brexit. Ailsa McNeil offers an overview.

Following a long summer of uncertainty, with only Theresa May’s vague and much repeated statement that ‘Brexit means Brexit’ offering any semblance of clarity, conference season was a chance for Britain’s political parties to outline their post-referendum strategy. Of the main UK-wide parties the Greens were first to hold their conference, from 2–4 September, followed by UKIP on 16 and 17 September and the Liberal Democrats from 17–20 September. Labour’s conference was held in Liverpool from 25–28 September, whilst the Conservatives gathered in Birmingham from 2–5 October. Finally, the SNP conference took place in Glasgow from 13–15 October.

Conservative

Brexit dominated the Conservative conference. As well as the usual party leader’s speech to close the conference, Prime Minister Theresa May also delivered a speech focused on Brexit on the opening day.  She firmly dismissed the demands for a second referendum and promised to ‘get on with the job’ of negotiating Britain’s exit from the EU, pledging to invoke Article 50 by the end of March 2017.

In defiance of a legal challenge aiming to prevent the government from triggering Article 50 without parliament’s consent and of a large number of MPs and peers who have called for a parliamentary vote, the Prime Minister told the conference that it is ‘up to the government to trigger Article 50 and the government alone’. Although not unexpected –  in August she indicated that no parliamentary vote would be held – May’s stance is at odds with a considerable body of legal opinion, contending that such a move would both expand the royal prerogative arbitrarily and subvert parliamentary democracy (by undermining the express intention of the legislature, as expressed in the European Communities Act 1972).

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The 2016 Labour leadership election in comparative perspective

Scott Pruysers Bill_Cross2 photo JB-2015-2

The Labour Party’s current leadership crisis is in part a product of its inclusive rules for leadership elections. In this post Scott Pruysers, William Cross and Jean-Benoit Pilet consider these rules in comparative perspective. Drawing on a study of more than 70 parties from 13 countries they show that the Labour Party’s leadership election rules are somewhat unusual in being highly inclusive, whilst also affording parliamentarians a special role as gatekeepers. Some members of Labour’s parliamentary party may regret not taking the gatekeeper function more seriously in 2015.

As a result of a landslide vote of no confidence in Jeremy Corbyn among his parliamentary colleagues (172 to 40), the Labour Party is in the process of selecting a party leader for the second time in two years (a relatively rare occurrence in leadership politics). The results of what can be labelled as a ‘semi-open primary’ between incumbent party leader Corbyn and his challenger Owen Smith will be announced on September 24.

The rules for the current leadership election, similar to those used to select Corbyn in 2015, are relatively straightforward. Corbyn, as the sitting party leader, is automatically included as a contestant in the leadership election. Challengers, by contrast, are required to be ‘nominated’ by at least 20 per cent of the parliamentary party/European parliamentary party (i.e., MPs and MEPs). Once nominated, voting is open to dues paying party members, affiliated supporters (members of an affiliated trade union or socialist society), and registered supporters. More than 640,000 party members and supporters are eligible to cast a ballot.

While there are some minor barriers to participation – registered supporters, for example, must pay £25 to be eligible to vote – the entire process is rather inclusive. Interested individuals need only pay their fee and register on time in order to cast their ballot for the Labour leader. How common is the UK Labour leadership selection method, and how open and inclusive is the selection process when we put it in a comparative perspective?

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Rules matter: why the current Labour crisis is not (only) about ideology

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The Labour Party’s current crisis is often characterised as an ideological dispute between the Parliamentary Labour Party and a membership that is significantly more left-wing. But, as Javier Sajuria demonstrates, it is hard to stand this up. The ideological distance between Labour members and MPs is in fact smaller than that between Conservative members and MPs. To explain why many are now suggesting that Labour is on the verge of splitting it is necessary to look at party rules as well as ideology.

The situation within the Labour Party has been described by many as a dispute between the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) and the membership. The en masse resignations from the shadow cabinet, followed by a vote of no confidence from 81 per cent of MPs, shows that Jeremy Corbyn has lost the trust of his peers (or perhaps he never really managed to obtain it in the first place). Labour activists, particularly those grouped around the Corbyn-supporting Momentum, accuse the PLP of betraying the party and lining up with the right-wing. On the other hand, MPs respond by pointing out that voters, and not members, elected them and that they have a mandate to protect the party from oblivion.

Regardless of how relevant it might seem under the current situation, the ideological distance between members and party elites is not a new interest for political scientists. John May’s curvilinear disparity law explains that more active members are usually more ideologically extreme than MPs and voters. As Meg Russell states in her book Building New Labour, there is a limit to how much a leader (or in this case party elites) can steer a party’s position to the left or right. Therefore, we could expect that a widening gap between members and the MPs may result in a difficult situation for the party, or even an eventual split. With that in mind, I set out to investigate – in a very preliminary way – if this ideological gap can explain Labour’s crisis, and if not, what are the alternative theories.

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What if Labour splits?

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In the post-referendum turmoil facing the Labour Party, there are increasing questions about whether the party might split. Despite shadow cabinet resignations and a Parliamentary Labour Party vote of no confidence, Jeremy Corbyn seems determined to hang on, and to force a contest if necessary. If that proceeds, a split looks very likely. But what would this mean in organisational terms: both inside parliament and beyond? Meg Russell investigates.

Events in the Labour Party over the last week have been extraordinary. Accused of a lacklustre performance in the Brexit referendum, party leader Jeremy Corbyn has lost the majority of his frontbench through resignations – sparked by his dramatic sacking of Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn. Labour MPs have now agreed a motion ‘That this PLP has no confidence in Jeremy Corbyn as Leader of the Parliamentary Labour Party’, by 172 votes to 40. Yet still Corbyn seems determined to hang on, and to force a contest in the wider party, hoping to retain the support of his activist base. As noted in a previous post this follows rule changes turning the Labour leadership contest into a fully ‘one member one vote’ process, and giving voting rights to ‘supporters’ who signed up for just £3. Left-wing activists flooded into Labour to vote for Corbyn, with the unprecedented consequence in British politics that a parliamentary party was left with a leader which it did not support. The problem in the referendum was not only that Corbyn campaigned half-heartedly, and was even accused of actively undermining the Labour Remain campaign, but that his presence from the very outset meant that the media and public had ceased taking Labour seriously.

The prospect of a contest raises the very serious possibility of a Labour Party split. If there were a contest and Corbyn won, the majority of his MPs might well feel forced to abandon the party. If he lost, he and his supporters might be forced out. Indeed a split might even be seen by some in the party as preferable to a contest – which would run all summer and could only have a messy end. But how would a Labour Party split work in practice? What, in particular, would be the immediate parliamentary consequences? What are the wider organisational repercussions? This post focuses particularly on the former, but touches on the latter – concluding that they are far more difficult.

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Corbyn as an organisational phenomenon

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Changes to the way the Labour leader is elected were an essential factor in Jeremy Corbyn’s victory. Meg Russell explains how the switch to a ‘one member one vote’ system was a fundamental change for the party – and for British politics – with last summer’s events raising profound questions about party democracy. This text is adapted from a response on the night to Steve Richards’ PSA Lecture on ‘Leadership, Loyalty And The Rise of Jeremy Corbyn’, on 15 October last year, and recently published in the Political Quarterly.

Steve Richards sets out convincingly some of the political and ideological currents that led to the rise of Jeremy Corbyn. But his unexpected election was also an organisational phenomenon – touching on key issues of internal party democracy. Changes to the mechanism for electing the leader, agreed under Ed Miliband’s leadership, were essential to Corbyn’s victory. The result raises profound questions about who does, and who should, own a political party such as Labour.

The leadership contest of 2015, which delivered Corbyn’s victory, was the first in the Labour Party’s history to be based purely on the principle of one person one vote. The question of who should choose the leader has been a particularly hotly contested one through the party’s recent history, as in many other political parties. Looking back to the 1970s, there was no involvement at all by the party outside parliament in the choice of leader – it was entirely a decision for Labour MPs. The Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) chose its leader, who then led the party as a whole. This same principle applied in all three of the main parties.

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