Abstaining on Covid rules: What’s behind Labour’s thinking?

Starmer is taking a gamble by sitting out this crucial vote. Will it pay off?

Abstaining is a tricky game to play. It will always open a party up to allegations of looking weak and indecisive. Keir Starmer faces those allegations today, after the party announced it would be sitting out the vote on new Covid restrictions in England on Tuesday.

The paradox of abstaining is that each side will always want to present abstaining as something else: as effectively a vote foror against an issue – depending on your bias. Committed to getting a grip on the virus, whatever it takes? Labour are betraying public health by sitting out. Committed to opposing ‘repressive’ restrictions? Labour are failing British businesses and liberty. It’s a tough battle to win.

Starmer has absolutely taken a gamble by abstaining on the new Covid restrictions, and it’s this: that the Tories will come out looking worse through their split being clear to see, than Labour will by lacking ‘leadership’ and sitting out on a crucial issue. The values get a little lost along the way, but then again – Parliament is powered by tactics.  

The Tory divides are pretty embarrassing for the government, that’s for sure. Johnson is being assailed by the Covid Recovery Group – which features many of the same faces as the hard-line European Research Group that did so much to push us towards No Deal. Over 70 of his own Tory MPs could vote against the restrictions.

But Labour’s move could also embolden these voices. Labour’s decision to abstain in effect amplifies Parliament’s anti-lockdown activists – at a time when we should be doubling down on the virus in the last few months before a vaccine is rolled out. The libertarians would otherwise be on the backfoot: after all, why risk a third wave when we’re so close to immunity? It would be beyond tragic. We will not see a united front from Labour and Tory front benches today: Labour will instead (perhaps fairly) allow ministers to be savaged by their own backbenchers all afternoon.  

Of course, Starmer’s gamble is put at risk by the fact that Labour’s own divides could also be fairly clear to see, if a significant number of Labour MPs vote for/against the restrictions.

Labour’s Exeter MP Ben Bradshaw set out the public line fairly clearly: “We & the public understand the need for restrictions, but have had enough of the serial incompetence of this Government.” But others – for example Labour MPs in Tier 3 areas – are less impressed.

Before the abstention announcement on Tuesday night, Emma Lewell-Buck, Labour MP for South Shields, shot down the idea. Calling for more support for hospitality, the MP told ITV: “You’re not going to get the Government to look at a new approach if you keep abstaining and sitting on your hands… They need to be forced into that change of approach” – by Labour voting against.

Of the three options – voting the new tier arrangement down would appear most irresponsible, given that we are still in the middle of the pandemic. If today’s vote failed, Covid restrictions would end by law, and the government would be forced to use (far clunkier and less scrutinised) emergency powers to avoid another Covid surge. That would be an own goal, jeopardising public health efforts while boosting the Tory hard right.

205 people died of Covid on Monday – a damning number. But it’s far down on 492 the day before England’s second lockdown began. Three hundred more families mourning every day: each of them offers a stark reminder of the stakes here, which cannot easily be dismissed.

In the context of parliamentary parlour games, Labour’s abstention move is understandable. It could strengthen Labour’s hand in future votes, if it looks like the Tories will have to rely on Starmer’s troops.

What will have a bigger impact though: No 10’s line that Labour is offering ‘no leadership at all’, or the embarrassment of Johnson being more clearly assailed by his party’s hard right? We’ll find out soon enough. In the meantime, it is Starmer who is facing the loudest allegations of dereliction of duty – from all sides.

Josiah Mortimer is co-editor of Left Foot Forward.

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