Cameron-Harman love in as Labour prepares for a new leader

Though PM ducks questions on human trafficking and PMQs itself

There was a strangely jolly, almost flirtatious mood at Prime Minister's Questions today, as David Cameron paid tribute to Harriet Harman as a "credit" to her party. Facing Harman for the last time before the Opposition elects a new leader, Cameron joked that Labour's acting leader was the "most popular" of the three Labour leaders he has faced including Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. And he reminded the House that "it's au revoir" rather than "goodbye" as Harman remains elected as deputy leader, a role in which may well see her stand in at the despatch box in the future.

Harman expressed sympathy to Cameron over the death of his father, and congratulations over the birth of his new daughter, but asked some tough questions on human trafficking. Harman urged Cameron to opt in to an EU Directive on the issue, but Cameron refused, claiming it goes no further than the Government's own plans. Harman said "I know some in his party are irrationally hostile to Europe" but that she hoped Cameron would not let them get in the way of signing up to the EU Directive. Cameron later implied he would consider arguments from Labour MPs for signing up to the directive.

In a separate and more partisan exchange, Cameron said it was "the height of irresponsibility" for shadow ministers to go to the TUC and encourage strikes amid the need for cutting the budget deficit.

Finally, Harman asked Cameron if the Tories were still enthusiastic about returning PMQs to twice a week, as they sometimes argued while in Opposition. Unsurprisingly, Cameron said he favoured a once a week session, describing that as "one of the few things" with which he fully agreed with Tony Blair.

UPDATE: The Prime Minister is wrong to say that Britain does not need to sign the EU Sex Slave Trafficking Directive, says former Europe minister, Denis MacShane, secretary of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Trafficking.

"Last week Teresa May told me Britain would not opt in. Today the PM said he would examine the issue but claimed British laws covered all the problems. But the whole point of an EU directive is that it obliges cross-frontier cooperation and an obligation meet EU rules.

"Sex slave trafficking cannot be combatted on a nation-only basis. The Government is sending out the wrong signal by saying No to a European-wide coordinated campaign. It was sad to see Nick Clegg whispering in David Cameron's ear to provide arguments for traditional Tory Euroscepticism on EU directives.

"The campaign against sex slave trafficking will continue and many will be disappointed at the opposition of Mr Cameron to this important EU directive," MacShane added.

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.
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Leader: The divisions within Labour

Labour’s divisions have rendered it unfit for government at a moment of profound political change.

Labour is a party torn between its parliamentary and activist wings. Since Jeremy Corbyn, who this week appealed desperately for unity, was re-elected by a landslide last September, Labour has become the first opposition in 35 years to lose a ­by-election to the governing party and has continually trailed the Conservatives by a double-digit margin. Yet polling suggests that, were Mr Corbyn’s leadership challenged again, he would win by a comfortable margin. Meanwhile, many of the party’s most gifted and experienced MPs refuse to serve on the front bench. In 2015 Mr Corbyn made the leadership ballot only with the aid of political opponents such as Margaret Beckett and Frank Field. Of the 36 MPs who nominated him, just 15 went on to vote for him.

Having hugely underestimated the strength of the Labour left once, the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) will not do so again. In the contest that will follow Mr Corbyn’s eventual departure, the centrists could lock out potential successors such as the shadow business secretary, Rebecca Long-Bailey. Under Labour’s current rules, candidates require support from at least 15 per cent of the party’s MPs and MEPs.

This conundrum explains the attempt by Mr Corbyn’s supporters to reduce the threshold to 5 per cent. The “McDonnell amendment” (named after the shadow chancellor, who failed to make the ballot in 2007 and 2010) is being championed by the Bennite Campaign for Labour Party Democracy and Jon Lansman of Momentum, who is interviewed by Tanya Gold on page 34. “For 20 years the left was denied a voice,” he tweeted to the party’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, on 19 March. “We will deny a voice to no one. We face big challenges, and we need our mass membership to win again.”

The passage of the amendment at this year’s Labour conference would aid Mr Lansman’s decades-long quest to bring the party under the full control of activists. MPs have already lost the third of the vote they held under the electoral college system. They face losing what little influence they retain.

No Labour leader has received less support from his MPs than Mr Corbyn. However, the amendment would enable the election of an even more unpopular figure. For this reason, it should be resolutely opposed. One should respect the motivation of the members and activists, yet Labour must remain a party capable of appealing to a majority of people, a party that is capable of winning elections.

Since it was founded, Labour has been an explicitly parliamentary party. As Clause One of its constitution states: “[The party’s] purpose is to organise and maintain in Parliament and in the country a political Labour Party.” The absurdity of a leader opposed by as much as 95 per cent of his own MPs is incompatible with this mission. Those who do not enjoy the backing of their parliamentary colleagues will struggle to persuade the voters that they deserve their support.

Labour’s divisions have rendered it unfit for government at a moment of profound political change. Rather than formalising this split, the party needs to overcome it – or prepare for one of the greatest defeats in its history.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution