Philip Cowley

Why Labour MPs aren’t turkeys afraid of a Christmas election

Why Labour MPs aren't turkeys afraid of a Christmas election
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Turkeys don't vote for Christmas. If I had a penny for every time I'd heard that phrase recently to explain why some Labour MPs didn’t want an election, I'd have enough to buy, well, a turkey.

It seems such an obvious argument. Behind in the polls, often by double digits, they have a leader in whom relatively few MPs have confidence and who plumbs new depths of unpopularity with many voters. Plus, their stance on the most important political issue of the day can only be described, even if one is charitable, as potentially tricky to sell on the doorstep in the freezing cold ('…then, next, we’ll call a special conference to decide what to do…'). In such circumstances, who’d vote for an early election?

And yet, with the exception of the bit about the cold (and the precise details of Labour’s Brexit policy), all of this applied in April 2017, when almost every Labour MP voted for Theresa May’s snap election.

In many ways, things were even worse then. The Conservatives may now have a double-digit lead in the polls, but two surveys published just before May called her election had the Conservatives 21 percentage points ahead of Labour. Diane Abbott’s observation about the mood of the PLP in 2017 ('some Labour MPs were crying in my office and in the tearoom as if it [was] a f****** funeral') was spot on; at the time, one of the Labour whips compared the mood in the PLP to a wake. On the day that the election was called, Labour’s election coordinator, Andrew Gwynne, was shown details of Labour’s own polling, which had the party on course to win just 157 seats. The last of Labour’s casualties would be Gwynne himself, set to lose his seat of Denton and Reddish, where Labour had a majority of over 10,000. We were 'f****** toast' said another senior member of the PLP.

Just because it didn’t turn out that way doesn’t mean Labour MPs didn’t think it at the time. Labour were facing the sort of industrial slaughter of which turkeys would be familiar – and yet, with just a handful of dissenters, Labour’s turkeys still voted en masse for Christmas.

So why are things different now? It can’t just be a fear of their own electoral defeat that is motivating Labour MPs. There are at least three major differences.

First, there is Brexit. In 2017, Article 50 had just been triggered; extensions, cliff edges and all the rest of it were all a long way in the distance. Fast forward two-and-a-bit years and the possibility of a no-deal Brexit was enough to persuade many in the party that they couldn't accept an October election – the more partisan hoped that an election after the Prime Minister had been forced into accepting a Brexit extension would be better for Labour.

Even now, some still hope they might be able to legislate for a second referendum. Yet others fear that an election fought with Brexit still unresolved is a trap, one that can only end badly for Labour. True, this was a risk in 2017, but Theresa May never managed to turn the election into a rerun of the referendum. Labour’s initial strategy document in 2017, presented to the NEC at the beginning of the campaign, even included the phrase 'Brexit is settled'. No one would write this now.

Second, in 2017 most people believed that opposition parties simply could not turn down elections – that it was difficult to go around complaining that the government was the worst ever, yet pass up the chance to turf it out. (Corbyn has been privately consistent on this; in 2017 he was adamant that Labour would have to vote for an election). Yet once that Rubicon was crossed in September this year, and the sky did not fall in, it became much easier to argue against an election for a second and third time.

And third, while some Labour MPs do fear a slaughter, others have the opposite concern: that Labour might do well enough to propel Jeremy Corbyn into No. 10. There are still a sizeable number of Labour MPs with deep reservations about him and those around him. They had similar doubts in 2017, of course, but then it didn’t matter so much, because there seemed to be no chance of Corbyn becoming Prime Minister. (Indeed, back then some Labour MPs hoped that the electorate might do for the Labour leadership what the PLP had failed to do the year before). Even allowing for the current Conservative poll leads, they look at what happened in 2017 – and just how close Britain came to a Corbyn premiership – and worry it could happen again. Just don’t expect them to say that out loud.

Labour’s hesitancy over an election is, then, much more complicated than just MPs worried about their own necks.

The rules of the game change today, though. The Commons has so far turned down three motions to trigger an early election under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. On each occasion, the Labour position has been to abstain. Because that law requires a two-thirds majority of all MPs to result in an early election, an abstention has the same effect as a 'no' vote.

Yet today's bill does not require any such super-majority; at each of its stages it just requires a majority of one. With Conservative support, Labour do not even need to change their stance and the bill will sail through. Labour just need to continue to abstain. Even if they try to block it by voting against, it is quite possible that the government will still win, given support from the other parties. Christmas comes, regardless of what the turkeys do.

Philip Cowley is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University of London and one of the editors of Sex, Lies and Politics: the Secret Influences That Drive our Political Choices, published by Biteback.