by Olivia Hanks
The debate over Article 50 has brought out sharp divisions in British politics, with Tulip Siddiq’s departure from the Labour front bench potentially the first of several resignations. Jeremy Corbyn’s confirmation that he will impose a three-line whip on Labour MPs to back the triggering of Article 50 has caused discontent within his party and outside it, for its message to the government is: do what you like – we won’t make a fuss.
The surprising thing about the Supreme Court ruling on Brexit is not that the government cannot trigger Article 50 without an Act of Parliament – it’s that the outcome could ever have been in doubt. The job of Parliament is to hold the government to account. If the biggest issue to face the UK since the war could be decided by the cabinet without a vote, we might as well dissolve it for good.
The view, which appears widespread, that members of Parliament should simply bow to the government’s will demonstrates that we are losing our understanding of the importance of political opposition – an extremely worrying state of affairs for a democracy.
The official opposition to the UK government is often referred to as a ‘government-in-waiting’. This might seem obviously true – any opposition party presumably seeks to govern, and for the sake of its electoral chances needs to present itself as a credible future government. However, this focus on a future, hypothetical position downplays the significance of that party’s current role. The logical extension of this is that parties don’t have to actually do anything as opposition, merely be ‘electable’ when elections come round.
But the role of the opposition is a key part of representative democracy. It represents all those who did not vote for the administration, and it holds the administration to account through rigorous scrutiny in various forms.
The Labour leadership has bought into the myth of ‘the will of the people’ so completely that it has forgotten how to do its job as opposition.
It is not only the Daily Mail and its readers who have lost sight of this. The Labour leadership has bought into the myth of ‘the will of the people’ (though since 63% of Labour voters backed Remain, it’s anyone’s guess how they think this will work out for them) so completely that it has forgotten how to do its job as opposition – to challenge the government every step of the way so it is forced to think its decisions through and justify them publicly. The ‘numbers game’ means the Tories will win in any whipped Commons vote. It does not mean they should be left to do whatever they like.
The political illiteracy of sections of the Labour party was most shockingly exposed in summer 2015, just after the Tories had won a majority, when interim leader Harriet Harman justified ordering the party not to vote against the welfare bill on the grounds that the people had spoken and the Tories’ vision had triumphed. This is a frighteningly fundamental misunderstanding of what Parliament is for.
By saying at every opportunity that it will vote for Article 50, the Labour Party has abandoned any possibility of forcing concessions from the government, as Green MP Caroline Lucas pointed out back in November. Theresa May is now claiming that “both sides in the referendum campaign made it clear that a vote to leave the EU would be a vote to leave the single market” – a position which, even if supported by three-quarters of Brexit voters, would not have won the referendum. Instead of exposing this barefaced lie, Labour (with a few honourable exceptions) is nodding along, paralysed by its fear of UKIP in the ‘heartlands’.
This failure of opposition, quite apart from the legislative nightmare of Brexit, is a constitutional crisis in itself. Most European countries, used to the coalitions that a proportional system brings about, are fearful of majority government, seeing in it authoritarian tendencies. Britain, on the other hand, sees it as necessary for ‘strong’ government – which perhaps comes to the same thing. Our insistence on viewing democracy as a game of winners and losers, where the latter should just shut up until the next election (for illustration, see every single online exchange about the EU referendum) has made us blind to the need for checks and balances, and cavalier about the consequences of scrapping them. What this has now come to is a government which, despite a majority of just 14, is so ‘strong’ that it is casting aside the democratic process, passing legislation through statutory instruments and attempting to bypass Parliament entirely in the Brexit process.
Any person, any party, will govern badly when their work is left unchallenged. Aditya Chakrabortty wrote in the Guardian last week about Haringey council’s plans to demolish an estate and hand over the entire neighbourhood to a private company. Similar ‘regeneration’ projects are being overseen by Labour councils across London, including Lambeth and Southwark, where plans to evict residents resulted in the improbable spectacle of a Conservative government stepping in to block a Labour attempt to destroy social housing. Lambeth has 57 Labour councillors out of a total of 63; Southwark, 48 out of 63; Haringey, 49 out of 57. It appears the result of such untroubled majorities is the disappearance of all the party’s proclaimed values on social housing.
Scrutiny was formally written into the structure of local government in 2000 in response to the introduction of single-party cabinets to replace the cross-party committee system. Councils run by a cabinet are obliged to have at least one scrutiny committee, which can examine policy and can also call in for review cabinet decisions it thinks are suspect. These committees are made up of councillors who are not cabinet members. However, they are subject to the same proportionality rules as all council committees (known as Widdicombe rules), meaning that a party with an overall majority on the council will also have a majority on the scrutiny committee. This makes it in practice very difficult for meaningful scrutiny to take place – particularly when there are barely any opposition members on the council at all.
Once again, we have our ‘first past the post’ electoral system to blame for this imbalance. To take a single local example, in the last elections to South Norfolk District Council in 2015, the Conservatives won 54% of the vote but 87% of the seats. Labour, despite a vote share of almost 20%, won no seats at all.
Of course, in an ideal world, scrutiny would be welcomed by the ruling party as a tool for better decision-making. Perhaps asking ourselves just why this scenario seems so far-fetched might give us some insight into what is wrong with our democracy.
The behaviour of London Labour councils and the Conservative government shows that no one party has a monopoly on bad governance. We need to rediscover the role of opposition, and start pushing our leaders to do better instead of leaving them to do their worst. The Article 50 bill might have been an excellent opportunity for this, but it looks as though Labour has thrown it away.
Header image via UK Parliament