Friday, 15 November 2013

Absent Friends?

Since the Westminster Parliament voted (by 26 votes) to continue with the justly maligned Bedroom Tax, the twitteratti have been having a field day. Bitter recrimination has been piled on accusation and deep loathing. MPs have been targeted for direct action. Threats have been made to oust MPs who have left their vulnerable constituents at the mercy of this iniquitous legislation.

So far, so unexceptional you might think, but in this case the targets are the MPs who represent the party that publicly opposes the Tax; that has committed to repeal the legislation; and that was responsible for the staging of the debate. Whit?!

The substance of the accusations levelled at (some) Labour MPs (and at the Party in general), is that by not having all their MPs in the Commons for the vote, they have let down the fight against the Bedroom Tax. In some extreme cases the claim is that this failure led to their own amendment being lost, despite the obvious fallacy of that!

Now the rights and wrongs of the pairing system aren't an argument that can be dealt with here. Nor, incidentally, are they an issue that was raised by anyone before the debate or vote. However, it is unquestionable that the missing MPs were paired. Thus, all claims that the missing MPs 'cost' the vote against the Bedroom Tax fail, as their appearance would immediately have been matched by the appearance of their 'pair' to vote in favour.

It is also most unlikely that any attempt to 'ambush' the vote would have defeated the tax. Firstly, even if successful, it would not have been binding on the Government, and they would simply have called a vote of confidence, which they would have won. A similar caveat applies to any attempt to impose a three-line whip. That would have been made public, and would have turned the vote into a a vote of confidence with similar results.

Indeed, one MP has pointed out that all the SNP MPs have been absent at one time or another at votes against the legislation containing the Bedroom Tax, while it was going though the commons. While there is one error in her list, the point about absent votes and pairing remains true. No doubt MPs of other parties missed these and similar votes. No doubt all of the above MPs were paired, and their vulnerable constituents not left without a representative. But quite clearly not all parliamentary votes are as significant as others. Indeed these votes actually impacted on the passage of the legislation!

Having said that, there have clearly been failures on the part of the opposition. How else can we explain what should have been a great public opportunity being turned into a publicity gaffe? It should have been anticipated that public interest in the outcome of the vote (even if overturning it would have required the votes of LibDems) meant that any likely absences should have been identified and - if unjustifiable, stopped, if justifiable, explained. After all, many of those criticising believe in extra-parliamentary campaigning, and it is hardly wrong for MPs to also take part in such campaigns. Not preparing for this, and probably allowing some non-attendances that should never have been allowed, has meant a massive publicity opportunity for the Labour Opposition has been lost.

However, what has also been lost in the welter of criticism is any sight of the real villains of the piece. After all the majority of the votes in the Commons were to back the Bedroom Tax - these ConDem MPs are thanking their stars for the furore whipped up by the nationalists and ultra-left.

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