Labour: From Constitutional Reform to Shameless Opportunism

Nicholas Pentney 

Image © Christian Guthier

Upon Ed Miliband’s joining of forces with those Tory Rebels who opposed Lords reform, one may be tempted to invoke the old idiom that “politics makes strange bed fellows.” Indeed, Labour’s vigorous support (in the form of a three-line whip no less) of the band of rebellious Conservatives who rejected House of Lords reform plans does seem very odd indeed. After all, wasn’t Labour the party of constitutional reform? Wasn’t this the party that at one time in government had begun the biggest constitutional upheaval since the Reform Act of 1832? Wasn’t this the party who talked about the need for reform in manifesto after manifesto?

Of course, when pressed, Labour insisted that they were actually in favour of the Reform Bill – it just wanted more time for it and in fact would have supported the Bill at the second reading. This is frankly hard to believe; Labour cannot be ignorant of the fact that the rejection of the motion would have killed off the Bill in the way that it did. Besides, Labour had no problem in getting to work with devolution and other reforms without any delay after the 1997 election. So how does one explain Labour’s attack on Lords reform? The answer comes down to Ed Miliband and his trademark opportunistic and cynical tendencies.

Ed probably thinks he’s been quite clever. By opposing the programme motion he thinks he can claim that he hadn’t reneged on his and Labour’s reformist principles whilst at the same time inflicting a considerable blow on the Coalition. When one looks at Miliband’s track record, can anyone be really surprised when he jumps into bed with a bunch of rebellious Tories? For instance, on AV, rather than pull out three-line whip levels of party discipline, he quietly tolerated those in his own camp who gave vigorous support to the ‘No’ campaign. On government cuts he opposes or supports depending on what the opportunistic climate dictates. On public sector strikes he quietly sat on the fence until he was sure that he would gain most from coming down on the side of the strikers.

The Labour leader may think that whilst his party is riding high in the polls, it’s worth sticking the course with his strategy of opportunism. However, Labour’s comfortable position in the polls has little to do with Labour opportunism and more to do with public dissatisfaction with the Government.

Ultimately Ed will need to give his party distinction. He won’t be able to rely on his opportunism forever. Sooner or later he’s going to have to give some identity to his party. As we now know that’s not going to happen with any economic policy from the opposition, so he may be well off to look at constitutional reform as a way to give character to the party rather than just another opportunity to take advantage of. Some may say that it’s not worth it as economic issues are the order of the day but as we now know, Labour has no alternative economic plans of its own. Why not then get those constitutional reforms out from storage, dust them off and get to work making plans to repair the broken ‘Westminster Model’ of UK politics?

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