Rising coalition tension squeezes Labour out of the debate

The more Lib Dems and Tories feel licensed to air competing views, the more Labour looks short of th

The Conservative party does not like the 50p tax rate. That much is clear. It is just as clear that government policy is, for the time being, to retain the rate. Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats support a "Mansion Tax", although it is not government policy to introduce one. Both parties are in office, each accuses the other of hogging the agenda, neither gets its way all of the time. That is how coalition works. It is all quite obvious really.

But one feature of the arrangement that gets less recognition is the effect it is having on Opposition MPs. Labour have complained since the formation of the coalition that two-party government squeezes them out of the news agenda. It also squeezes them out of policy debate. The Lib Dems have cultivated the role of in-house opposition within government; the Tory right does something similar. That doesn't leave much room for the views of the official opposition, which is a bit less glamorous because it is that much further away from real power.

What is more, as coalition relations get tetchier - as they plainly are - this problem for Labour gets worse. Competitive "differentiation" between the Lib Dem and Tory wings of the government will soak up ever more news time. But it isn't just about media attention. The Coalition is a political enterprise that is fundamentally distinct from the two parties that own it. That gives Lib Dems licence to explore the question of what Lib Dem views might be and Tories freedom to debate Toryism in a way that seems increasingly denied to Labour MPs.

There has been plenty of argument in about what sort of direction Labour should be taking, often identifiable by colour coding: Blue, Purple, Black etc. But that energy seems to be fizzling out.

I mentioned in my column this week the paralysing fear of schism that stops Ed Miliband from developing innovative ideas on public service reform (among other things). The Labour benches generally feel frozen with caution. The two Eds, Miliband and Balls, advance the party line in increments and then invite the party to toe it without a fraction of deviation. As a result, anything anyone in Labour says that might be decoded as new or interesting causes a sensation, which only reinforces the leadership's fear of saying anything - or allowing underlings to say anything - egregious.

Paradoxically, the fact of being bound into an awkward alliance with another party seems to have made Lib Dem and Tory MPs more relaxed about expressing their own opinions, while Labour MPs, released from the responsibilities of government, are the most cryptic and tongue-tied of the lot.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

David Lammy. Photo: Getty
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David Lammy calls for parliament to overturn the EU referendum result

The Labour MP for Tottenham said Britain could "stop this madness through a vote in Parliament".

David Lammy, the Labour MP for Tottenham, has called on parliament to stop Brexit.

In a statement published on Twitter, he wrote: "Wake up. We do not have to do this. We can stop this madness and bring this nightmare to an end through a vote in Parliament. Our sovereign Parliament needs to now vote on whether we should exit the EU. 

"The referendum was an advisory, non-binding referendum. The Leave campaign's platform has already unravelled and some people wish they hadn't voted to Leave. Parliament now needs to decide whether we should go forward with Brexit, and there should be a vote in Parliament next week. Let us not destroy our economy on the basis of lies and the hubris of Boris Johnson."

Lammy's words follow a petition to re-run the referendum, which has gathered 1.75 million signatures since Friday.

However, the margin of victory in the referendum - more than a million votes - makes it unlikely party leaders would countenance any attempt to derail the Brexit process. On Saturday morning, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said there should be no second referendum. Tory leader David Cameron has also accepted the result, and triggered a leadership election.

It is true, though, that had Britain's EU membership been decided in parliament, rather than by a referendum, there would have been an overwhelming vote to Remain. Just 138 Tory MPs declared for Leave, compared with 185 for Remain. In Labour, just 10 declared for Leave, versus 218 for Remain, while no Lib Dem, Scottish Nationalist, Plaid Cymru, Sinn Fein or SDLP MPs backed Leave.

Rob Ford, an academic who has studied Ukip voters, said Lammy's call was "utter madness":