It has been noticeable that Keir Starmer’s more direct, detail-oriented approach over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic seems to be turning the heads of voters who would have been but a pipedream for Corbyn’s Labour to ever reach. The radicalism of his predecessor, which contributed its fair share towards the Conservatives 80-seat majority in the 2019 General Election, has left the current opposition leader in an admittedly difficult position regarding his ability to hold the government to account. To this extent, alongside the high level of public discontent, the opposition’s success in keeping the government accountable has been reasonable, if somewhat muted.
Starmer has also come under criticism for a ‘policy of abstention’
The best example of successful opposition accountability lies in the Conservatives’ abstention on the 18th January against Labour’s opposition day motion victories regarding free school meals and universal credit. Whilst not legally binding, given the majority Boris Johnson holds, the publicity this creates undoubtedly keeps the government accountable, and its actions in full view, with the votes being heavily covered across national news networks. Given the deficit Labour has in terms of seats in Parliament, such actions can be used to argue that Labour have had a relatively successful time of holding the government responsible.
Yet the claim that Labour have successfully opposed the government is not without criticism. There is scope to question whether Labour has led or been led in holding the government to account. The U-turn on exam grading can be largely attributed to the activism of students whilst the government’s backtrack on free school meals was mostly down to the influence of footballer, Marcus Rashford. Without wider public support it seems difficult to see how Labour could have done anything than watch whilst government policy was passed through Parliament.
“When you’re elected and you’re sat in that seat at Westminster, you take a position – you don’t abstain.”
Starmer has also come under criticism for a ‘policy of abstention’, instructing his MPs to abstain from voting on new health restrictions in several cases. This came despite, each time, there being significant criticism against the Government’s proposals. This supports the argument that Labour has been led rather than lead opposition against the government. As Gary Neville told Sky News at the time, “When you’re elected and you’re sat in that seat at Westminster, you take a position – you don’t abstain.” This considered, there are times where Labour have not only looked like they cannot hold the government to account without wider public support, but also like they have not wanted to.
Does this mean that the opposition has appeared like they are enabling government incompetence?
But the power of abstention is more powerful than most give credit for. Starmer, through whipping his MPs to abstain, can voice disapproval against government measures without openly opposing necessary extensions to health restrictions. Whether right or wrong, Labour would have received significant backlash for voting against important health measures; one can only imagine the field day Conservatives would be having, writing merrily about Labour voting against people’s health. By abstaining, Labour can keep the spotlight on the government, instead of risk accountability being lost in the furore over their opposition. Does this mean that the opposition has appeared like they are enabling government incompetence? Sometimes. But by choosing his battles wisely, Starmer allows the Labour party to continue to hold the government to account, by preventing the opposition’s actions becoming the issue of the day.
The heavy defeat in the last election meant that Labour would always fall short for many people in holding the government accountable for this pandemic. Undoubtedly, the government would not have been held to account as frequently without external pressure from the public and media. Yet by abstaining in key Covid-related votes, and pressing issues when urgent, the opposition can, on balance, be considered to have performed successfully.
Image: UK Parliament via Flickr