Labour MPs divide over whether to boycott the Thatcher tribute or hijack it

Former minister John Healey says "this will not be the occasion or opportunity" to criticise Thatcher's record but David Winnick says it would be "absolutely hypocritical" not to.

Ahead of today's special Parliamentary tribute to Margaret Thatcher, Ed Miliband has been encouraging Labour MPs to return from their constituencies in order to ensure the party is well represented at the occasion. There is, however, no formal requirement for backbenchers to attend and several have publicly announced that they intend to stay away.

In an article for PoliticsHome, former minister John Healey writes that David Cameron is "wrong to recall Parliament" and that Thatcher's death "could and should have been marked when the Commons returns next week." Healey, like other Labour MPs, is angered at the attempt by Thatcher's supporters to present her as a figure above and beyond party politics. He notes that Parliament has only been recalled 25 times since the Second World War and only once to pay tribute "to a truly national figure, the Queen Mother". Thatcher's legacy, he writes, is "too bitter" to merit such treatement. "I will play no part and I will stay away, with other things to do at home in the constituency."

Other Labour MPs who intend to remain on holiday or in their constituencies, include Ronnie Campbell, a former miner and MP for Blyth Valley, and John Mann, who has said he doesn't understand why "taxpayers' money" should be wasted on an additional session when it could be "properly done on Monday". Campbell said: "I have got better things to do in the office here, looking after the interests of the people of Blyth Valley than listening to people singing her praises. Some MPs might think it is their duty to be there — I certainly do not. Her legacy here was the destruction of thousands of jobs."

But while the Labour leadership wants as many as MPs as possible to attend (the site of empty opposition benches would be uncomfortable for Miliband) , it has made it clear that it would rather they stay away than use the occasion to attack Thatcher's time in office. As Healey rightly notes in his piece, the event is officially described as a "special session in which tributes will be paid"; it is not a debate on her record.  He adds: 

This will not be the occasion or opportunity to debate the closure of the coal industry, the squandering of North Sea oil revenues to cover the cost of tax cuts, the ‘big bang’ deregulation of banking, the £17 billion privatisation of public housing or the deep social divisions as a legacy of her period as Prime Minister.

For the same reason, George Galloway, who tweeted "may she burn in the hellfires" following the news of Thatcher's death, will boycott the occasion. Asked if he would be attending, Galloway said: "I understand it is not a debate, so no. If it were a debate about the legacy of Margaret Thatcher I would be first in the queue for prayers. It is a state-organised eulogy."

However, at least one Labour MP has announced that, if called by the Speaker, he will criticise Thatcher's record. David Winnick told the Guardian: "It would be absolutely hypocritical if those of us who were opposed at the time to what occurred – the mass unemployment, the poverty – were to remain silent when the house is debating her life. This will be an opportunity to speak frankly." Miliband, who is wary of Labour being seen to attack Thatcher just 48 hours after the news of her death, will hope that few choose to follow his lead. 

Margaret Thatcher attends the State Opening of Parliament in 2010. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Could Labour lose the Oldham by-election?

Sources warn defeat is not unthinkable but the party's ground campaign believe they will hold on. 

As shadow cabinet members argue in public over Labour's position on Syria and John McDonnell defends his Mao moment, it has been easy to forget that the party next week faces its first election test since Jeremy Corbyn became leader. On paper, Oldham West and Royton should be a straightforward win. Michael Meacher, whose death last month triggered the by-election, held the seat with a majority of 14,738 just seven months ago. The party opted for an early pre-Christmas poll, giving second-placed Ukip less time to gain momentum, and selected the respected Oldham council leader Jim McMahon as its candidate. 

But in recent weeks Labour sources have become ever more anxious. Shadow cabinet members returning from campaigning report that Corbyn has gone down "very badly" with voters, with his original comments on shoot-to-kill particularly toxic. Most MPs expect the party's majority to lie within the 1,000-2,000 range. But one insider told me that the party's majority would likely fall into the hundreds ("I'd be thrilled with 2,000") and warned that defeat was far from unthinkable. The fear is that low turnout and defections to Ukip could allow the Farageists to sneak a win. MPs are further troubled by the likelihood that the contest will take place on the same day as the Syria vote (Thursday), which will badly divide Labour. 

The party's ground campaign, however, "aren't in panic mode", I'm told, with data showing them on course to hold the seat with a sharply reduced majority. As Tim noted in his recent report from the seat, unlike Heywood and Middleton, where Ukip finished just 617 votes behind Labour in a 2014 by-election, Oldham has a significant Asian population (accounting for 26.5 per cent of the total), which is largely hostile to Ukip and likely to remain loyal to Labour. 

Expectations are now so low that a win alone will be celebrated. But expect Corbyn's opponents to point out that working class Ukip voters were among the groups the Labour leader was supposed to attract. They are likely to credit McMahon with the victory and argue that the party held the seat in spite of Corbyn, rather than because of him. Ukip have sought to turn the contest into a referendum on the Labour leader's patriotism but McMahon replied: "My grandfather served in the army, my father and my partner’s fathers were in the Territorial Army. I raised money to restore my local cenotaph. On 18 December I will be going with pride to London to collect my OBE from the Queen and bring it back to Oldham as a local boy done good. If they want to pick a fight on patriotism, bring it on."  "If we had any other candidate we'd have been in enormous trouble," one shadow minister concluded. 

Of Corbyn, who cancelled a visit to the seat today, one source said: "I don't think Jeremy himself spends any time thinking about it, he doesn't think that electoral outcomes at this stage touch him somehow."  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.