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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Most Leave voters back free movement – you just have to explain it

The argument during the referendum was never about free movement, but about immigration in general. 

This week, a piece of YouGov polling flipped on its head a widely held belief about the public’s attitude to immigration in the context of Brexit. The headline question was:

“In negotiating Britain’s departure from the European Union, do you think our government should offer EU citizens the right to travel, work, study or retire in Britain, in exchange for EU countries giving British citizens the same rights?”

Of the respondents, 69 per cent, including 60 per cent of Leave voters, responded that they should.

The poll has been overlooked by the bulk of the press, for whom it contradicts a very basic assumption – that the end of free movement, and the implicit acceptance of the narrative that high net migration had strained services and wages, was an electoral necessity for any party wanting to enter government. In fact, the apparent consensus against free movement after Brexit owes much less to deeply-rooted public opinion, and much more to the abject failure of progressives and mainstream Remain campaigners to make the case for it.

“If you’re explaining, you’re losing,” goes the old maxim of political communications. And this is accurate if you inhabit a world of tight, professional politics and your job is to capture votes using already widely understood concepts and a set of soundbites. So much of conventional political strategy consists of avoiding difficult or complex subjects, like free movement. This is especially the case if the exact meaning of the words requires defining. The job of radical politics is to change the terms of the debate entirely. That almost always means explaining things.

The strategy of Britain Stronger in Europe during the EU referendum campaign was a case in point. It honed down on its key message on economic stability, and refused to engage with the migration debate. As a result, the terms of the debate were set by the right. The argument during the referendum was never about free movement, but about immigration in general. If YouGov’s polling this week is correct, a majority of the British public support free movement – you just have to explain to them what it means.

That distinction between immigration and free movement was pivotal in the referendum. Immigration is a big, amorphous concept, and an influx of people, covering far more than Britain’s relationship with Europe. It makes an excellent scapegoat for the government’s failure to provide housing and public services. It has been so expertly blamed for bringing down wages that this has become received wisdom, despite almost nowhere being true. Free movement, on the other hand, can be understood more easily in terms of rights and security – not just for migrants in the UK, but for British citizens and workers.

As YouGov’s poll question explains, free movement would be a reciprocal agreement between post-Brexit Britain and the EU, enhancing UK citizens’ rights. We would get the right to live and work freely over an entire continent. Even if you might not want to exercise the right yourself, studying abroad might be something you want to preserve for your children. Even if you might not retire to France or Spain, you might well know someone who has, or wants to.

Perhaps most importantly, free movement makes British workers more secure. Migrants will come to the UK regardless of whether or not free movement agreements are in place; without the automatic right to work, many will be forced to work illegally and will become hyper-exploited. Removing migrants’ access to public funds and benefits – a policy which was in the Labour manifesto – would have a similar effect, forcing migrants to take any work they could find.

At present, Labour is in danger of falling into a similar trap to that of the main Remain campaigns in the EU referendum. Its manifesto policy was for an “economy first Brexit”, in other words, compromising on free movement but implying that it might be retained in order to get access to the single market. This fudge undeniably worked. In the longer term, though, basing your case for free movement entirely on what is good for the economy is exactly the mistake made by previous governments. Labour could grasp the nettle: argue from the left for free movement and for a raft of reforms that raise wages, build homes and make collective bargaining and trade unions stronger.

Making the case for free movement sounds like a more radical task than making the case for immigration more generally – and it is. But it is also more achievable, because continued free movement is a clear, viable policy that draws the debate away from controlling net migration and towards transforming the economy so that everyone prospers. Just as with the left’s prospects of electoral success in general, bold ideas will fare better than centrist fudges that give succour to the right’s narratives.