I’ve never liked abstention.
It seems timely to raise the subject, but I’ve never been keen. My general thinking has been if you’re elected to a decision making position then it falls to you to…make a decision.
It’s not always easy, but if you can’t take the tough calls then you have to ask whether you should be in the position of taking them.
Which is a tough thing for me to say, given how Labour voted on the Welfare Bill on Monday night. Before I go on, I should probably point out that it’s not quite as black and white as the Greens, the SNP, and the Corbynites have been painting it, and that in fact Labour did vote against the bill — Andrew Gwyne MP has blogged an explanation which is, embarrassingly, better than anything the Labour press office or frontbench has come out with.
Nonetheless, we did not acquit ourselves particularly well on Monday night, in my opinion.
I’ve never really been much of a rebel for the sake of it, when it comes to politics. I don’t think many would call me a hard lefty, for that matter. Yet if I’d been in the Commons yesterday, there’s a very good chance I’d have walked through the no lobby alongside Jeremy Corbyn.
Now, I understand the need for a party whip. In the elections just gone I had to endure all sorts of nonsense from primarily Green Party candidates calling for it to be banned, ignoring that without a whip no party could deliver on its manifesto pledges. Hell, banning whips would be the same as banning political parties.
I understand, too, why the three leadership candidates who abstained felt a need to abide by the whip, if they expect other MPs to obey their whip should they win. If Corbyn wins, then I suspect this may be a bit of a problem for him.
So it isn’t lightly that I’d defy a whip. But although I think Mr Gwynne has a very good point about the bill not being entirely bad, the bill as it stands is not one I would want to see on the statute book. And given that I’m not sure on principle that I could abstain, that doesn’t leave me with a great deal of options.
You see, the problem with abstaining is that, however principled your reasons may be, it looks a heck of a lot like cowardice. I don’t believe that the Labour leadership are cowards, but that won’t cut through in the era of soundbites, especially with the left braying that it’s as simple as rejecting everything.
The idea that Harriet Harman is a Tory is another complete nonsense; this is the author of the Equalities Act. What her stint as acting leader is neatly demonstrating is the near-impossibly difficult job the next Labour leader has before them. I don’t like the line that she has taken, but it is far from clear that there is a shining “right” path open to her or whoever succeeds her.
Whatever path they do choose, I would suggest that it be more active than abstention.