By Dave Bodimeade.
Many Labour members may think Parliament doesn’t matter but, under Corbyn, Labour has ceased to be a functioning opposition party. No amount of new members can make up for the lack of people on Corbyn’s front bench. Around half, yes half, of 100 front bench posts remain unfilled. These aren’t non jobs like Shadow Minister for Paper Clips. Instead they relate to many of the crucial issues that the party holds dear – Europe, Children, Schools, Pensions, Older People, Mental Health, Disabled People, Climate Change, Women & Equalities. On all these issues Labour lacks a shadow minister to hold the Tories to account. So the Tories can do and say what they like because no Labour shadow can respond to them. Other shadow ministers try to cover the vacancies but are continually stretched in every direction. For example, Paul Flynn has been elevated to the front bench at age of 81 and, for his pains, is shadowing both the Leader of the House and the Secretary of State for Wales. It’s rumored that, should another reshuffle be needed, Beryl, the Labour Party tea lady and Tiddles, the Labour Party cat, are in line for new and interesting roles.
Speaker John Bercow wants the government to be held to account. Labour isn’t doing that with half of the front bench jobs vacant. So, in the Autumn, he is likely to strip Labour of it’s status as the official Opposition.
This article by Atul Hatwal, Editor of Labour Uncut on 27 July 2016, explains the desperate situation.
Uncut has learned that House of Commons Speaker, John Bercow, is considering action to strip Labour of the title, Her Majesty’s Opposition, if Jeremy Corbyn wins the leadership election and the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) remains on strike, leaving the bulk of front bench roles unfilled.
Sources in the House of Commons administration familiar with his deliberations have told Uncut that Bercow has looked on with dismay at the impact of Labour’s civil war on the functioning of Britain’s parliamentary democracy. One said,
“The meltdown happened so near the end of the last term and the situation was so fluid that it would not have been appropriate to act. But if the situation persists into Autumn, when there is a full schedule of parliamentary business, some form of action is likely.”
Although the constitutional position is murky, the Speaker has a pivotal role in determining which party is the opposition. Normally the choice is clear – it’s the largest party opposing the government. However, with dozens of frontbench roles unfilled, Labour is in dangerous territory. Official designation as the Opposition brings a series of institutional advantages for Labour, ranging from funding to influence over the parliamentary agenda.
At the end of the last parliamentary term, Jeremy Corbyn was only able to complete his shadow cabinet by asking some MPs to take dual roles. Paul Flynn became shadow leader of the House of Commons and shadow secretary of state for Wales and Dave Anderson was appointed the shadow secretary of state for both Scotland and Northern Ireland. Currently the majority of shadow ministerial positions remain unfilled for Labour.
When the new parliamentary session begins, Labour’s Swiss cheese front bench is likely to be exposed. For example, if there is a motion on the floor relevant to a shadow team, while a Standing committee is considering a bill in that team’s area, with relevant Statutory Instruments committees also sitting and a Westminster Hall debate on a topic in their brief, then Labour will not be able to provide a shadow front bench representative in each debate.
In practical terms, it means the government will have no opposition in one or more area. They will not be held to account by the opposition and a core component of parliamentary democracy, in the way it has been practiced for over 100 years, will have broken down.
John Bercow and his team have been worrying about this since Labour’s front bench resigned en masse. They understand the gravity of an intervention such as removing Labour’s designation as the official opposition. But Bercow is clear about the role of the House of Commons in Britain’s democracy.
He has been a champion of backbenchers’ rights and the function of the House in holding the executive to account. Simply allowing such a major breakdown in the operation of the Commons on a permanent basis would be unacceptable.
The majority of Labour MPs expect Corbyn to defeat his leadership challenger, Owen Smith, and several are prepared for a war of parliamentary attrition over the next year.
With the level of acrimony increasing between pro and anti-Corbyn camps on a daily basis, the potential for the parliamentary party to come together after the election, if Corbyn wins, seems vanishingly small.
One option floated by PLP rebels looking to plug the accountability gap has been for the chairs of the PLP backbench committees to exercise their right to speak from the frontbench and provide an alternate source of senior scrutiny in the chamber of the Commons. However, this is unlikely to be good enough for the Speaker. It does not address the numbers problem for Labour’s shadow teams nor does it enable Labour to fulfil its core function as the opposition, providing a coherent, government-in-waiting, shadowing Theresa May’s administration.
The psychological and financial blow to Labour of losing official opposition status after 98 years would be huge. The only possible route out of this mess, would be for Labour MPs to return to the frontbench and serve under Corbyn. For many MPs, this would represent the ultimate humiliation. However, such a move, while painful, might not be quite as bleak as they fear. The primary means a leader has of exerting discipline on a frontbencher – the threat of the sack and replacement by a more pliant colleague – would be largely absent. Shadow cabinet members and ministers could publicly express their unexpurgated views of the leader with impunity. If he sacked them, their replacement could simply pick up where they left off – after all 80% of the PLP voted against Corbyn in the motion of no confidence.
Jeremy Corbyn could face a no win situation – tolerate the complete breakdown of his parliamentary authority without any ability to enforce his will on the front bench or remove rebels and face the prospect of the Speaker removing Labour as the official opposition as a direct result of his actions when he couldn’t fill the shadow ministerial vacancies.
John Bercow might be politically neutral but he could be forgiven for hoping Owen Smith can pull off an unlikely victory and unite Labour’s fractured parliamentary party, saving the Speaker from one of the toughest parliamentary decisions in generations.
Atul Hatwal’s full article can be found here…