Artillery Row

Parliament is Labour’s best friend

Labour needs to learn to use the new hybrid arrangement to their advantage

So, Parliament has decided to continue its hybrid arrangements. 

The number of people who actually understand what that means probably fit into the old Westminster Hall, while those who really care about it are currently squeezed into the Government and the Opposition whips’ offices. For them, it really matters. 

For this new Government, MPs first elected in December barely had the chance to find their offices before lockdown kept them at home. The usual camaraderie, that build-up of team spirit, solidarity and loyalty to the party has been replaced by WhatsApp groups that are impossible for whips to see or influence. The bad news for them is that it makes rebellion so much easier. 

But this Government still has an impressive majority and an in-built advantage. Just look at the pages of speculation around the recruitment of a West-Wing style press secretary – a person who will talk directly to a hungry media pack every day. What Government says makes a difference. Oppositions? Not so much.  

Keir Starmer can only look on longingly from the sidelines complaining that the Government is disrespecting Parliament by talking to the press first. But really, who wants to know how Labour would do things differently if they were in Government? Certainly not journalists. 

Labour is right to talk about Parliament, though. Always a pain for Governments, Parliament is the Opposition’s best friend. Or at least, it used to be.

What might have looked clever before is in danger of looking like game-playing now

In the old days, even when you were up against a large majority, it was possible to outwit a Government. Let’s say on a vote of medium importance, the Labour whips get a few of their MPs to tell some of their Government colleagues that they’re not going to bother with the vote. It’s Wednesday afternoon and people want to get home. The hours pass and few if any Labour MPs are seen in the cafes and corridors. The impression is that there probably won’t even be a vote and Government MPs start drifting away. Only that’s not what is happening. Like the Duke of Wellington hiding a spare regiment or two behind a hill, Labour with all its MPs in Parliament, has told everyone not to leave their rooms. By the time the division bell rings, the trap is sprung. 

These sorts of opportunities aren’t so available to Labour at the moment. Apart from anything else, Covid-19 means that what might have looked clever before is in danger of looking like game-playing now. These sorts of tactics would not go down well at such a serious time. 

On a practical level, such a piece of strategy would now be almost impossible to organise because of the hybrid arrangements. With only 50 people allowed into the Chamber at any one time, MPs might well be zooming in to debates and committees even if they’ve made the trek to Parliament. 

And all the bits around Parliament that bring it to life have been mothballed too. No constituents to welcome and show around, no receptions to promote the launch of important policy documents, no places where you can sit and engage in an interesting exchange of ideas – why travel hundreds of miles to take part in remote votes that you know you’re going to lose anyway?

It means that the new Leader of the Opposition has got it harder than any who went before him and yet, as different and difficult as it is, while the Government is busy governing, he has the luxury of time to learn how best to use Parliament to thwart his opponents. 

Awkward Select Committee inquiries with some heavy-hitting Labour MPs in chairs (Yvette Cooper, for example), an ambush in the House of Lords, the scrutiny of bills in their committee stages – all these are still available to him, and all are vulnerable to derailment. It might be slow, but there’s no hurry for Labour right now. 

Keir Starmer has understood all of that. He knows that it’s a steep climb to the peak and that he’s still only in the foothills. As a lawyer he knows about the law. As Leader of the Opposition, he now has the chance to learn the finer details of how that legislation is actually made. Understanding the process is halfway to influencing the outcome. 

But most importantly, he realises that it’s not about a showy performance at PMQs but building a reputation of competence. He knows that Parliament, in these serious times, is the best platform available to him to do that. It’s not sexy, but nor is being in Opposition. 

Getting to know every detail of how Parliament works, especially in this strange hybrid era, is Labour’s best chance of tripping the Conservatives up, of showing how things can be done better, and gaining the public trust that might just propel them into Government at the next election. 

At that point, of course, it’ll be the Tories who complain that Labour is disrespecting Parliament by talking directly to the media who are now only interested in them – and it will be the Conservatives learning to make Parliament their best friend all over again.

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