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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Tom Watson rouses Labour's conference as he comes out fighting

The party's deputy leader exhilarated delegates with his paean to the Blair and Brown years. 

Tom Watson is down but not out. After Jeremy Corbyn's second landslide victory, and weeks of threats against his position, Labour's deputy leader could have played it safe. Instead, he came out fighting. 

With Corbyn seated directly behind him, he declared: "I don't know why we've been focusing on what was wrong with the Blair and Brown governments for the last six years. But trashing our record is not the way to enhance our brand. We won't win elections like that! And we need to win elections!" As Watson won a standing ovation from the hall and the platform, the Labour leader remained motionless. When a heckler interjected, Watson riposted: "Jeremy, I don't think she got the unity memo." Labour delegates, many of whom hail from the pre-Corbyn era, lapped it up.

Though he warned against another challenge to the leader ("we can't afford to keep doing this"), he offered a starkly different account of the party's past and its future. He reaffirmed Labour's commitment to Nato ("a socialist construct"), with Corbyn left isolated as the platform applauded. The only reference to the leader came when Watson recalled his recent PMQs victory over grammar schools. There were dissenting voices (Watson was heckled as he praised Sadiq Khan for winning an election: "Just like Jeremy Corbyn!"). But one would never have guessed that this was the party which had just re-elected Corbyn. 

There was much more to Watson's speech than this: a fine comic riff on "Saturday's result" (Ed Balls on Strictly), a spirited attack on Theresa May's "ducking and diving; humming and hahing" and a cerebral account of the automation revolution. But it was his paean to Labour history that roused the conference as no other speaker has. 

The party's deputy channelled the spirit of both Hugh Gaitskell ("fight, and fight, and fight again to save the party we love") and his mentor Gordon Brown (emulating his trademark rollcall of New Labour achivements). With his voice cracking, Watson recalled when "from the sunny uplands of increasing prosperity social democratic government started to feel normal to the people of Britain". For Labour, a party that has never been further from power in recent decades, that truly was another age. But for a brief moment, Watson's tubthumper allowed Corbyn's vanquished opponents to relive it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.