Last Wednesday at Prime Minister’s Questions, Keir Starmer asked Boris Johnson what the evidence base is for the new 10pm curfew in pubs and restaurants in England. The Prime Minister failed to provide any such evidence, and, as a well-placed source puts it: “there is none”.
Starmer’s intervention was interpreted by political journalists (myself included) as a clear signposting of Labour’s intention to change direction on the policy which, as well as lacking a clear evidence base for its effectiveness in containing the virus, is badly damaging the ability of hospitality venues to turn a profit in an evening, after months of closures due to lockdown and, in many cases, extra costs and lower overheads as a result of implementing measures to make the premises covid secure.
But it was later confirmed that Labour had no plan to vote against this measure: MPs would instead be whipped to abstain when it comes before the House of Commons on Tuesday 13 October. It means that Conservative MPs who were planning to rebel over the issue are no longer planning on doing so: they have no chance of successfully defeating the government if Labour doesn’t vote against the measure too.
While many Labour MPs are supportive of the measure and argue the case for a measure that curtails drinking and length of time spent in environments where the virus is likely to spread, many others are privately “uncomfortable” with the rule for the reasons mentioned above. One, Andrew Gwynne, has said publicly that he plans to vote against the rule regardless of the party line.
The Labour leadership’s position on the 10pm curfew is one of the clearest examples of what critics have described as “fence-sitting” from Keir Starmer in recent weeks, of making noises about objecting to a certain measure, but failing to follow through with action that opposes it.
So why doesn’t Keir Starmer get his party to vote against the 10pm curfew? As his team have been privately communicating to concerned MPs, and to the journalists who ask, it is, they argue, more about a quirk of parliamentary procedure than it is about the party’s positioning. The vote in question tomorrow will be on statutory instruments, rather than primary legislation; in other words, it isn’t a new piece of legislation, but an “update” to existing legislation on coronavirus restrictions. Because it is secondary legislation, MPs can only either approve or reject it, with no opportunities to amend it.
It means, figures close to the leader explain, that if Labour were minded to vote against the 10pm curfew, and Conservative MPs joined in sufficient numbers to defeat the government on this issue, all of the new measures would be voted down. Instead of new measures, including one with a dubious scientific basis, there would be no new measures introduced into law. Without the ability to amend it, they have tried to use back channels to encourage the government to adopt the Welsh model of the curfew (no alcohol served from 10pm, with a 20-minute drink-up time before the establishment’s closure), with no apparent success. Their only option is to abstain on the issue, so as not to vote down the entire gamut of the government’s new coronavirus measures.
That is Labour’s argument. The problem is that it isn’t actually clear yet exactly what MPs will be given votes over: there remains the possibility that, after a debate on all of the measures together, there will be separate votes on each individual measure.
No final decision on how Labour MPs will be whipped to vote will be taken until tomorrow’s shadow cabinet meeting, when there should be greater clarity on the exact detail of each vote. The leadership may well dodge a bullet, with the 10pm curfew bundled into a vote on a range of measures. Otherwise, the vote will be a test of Labour’s strategy. How far will it carry its constructive approach to opposition, and at what point will it seek to defeat the government on a measure that by its own admission falls short?