Why did Labour MPs vote with the government?

Glen Newey

It’s a done deal. Theresa May has bagged the two-thirds Commons support that, under the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, is needed to call an election before term. The big question is: why did most Labour MPs vote with the government? Given the situation, they should eye an early election with as much relish as badgers do shaving brushes. But no, the ivory-handled bristle has got the brocks crowding the lobby. Less than a quarter of the PLP didn’t back the government: a handful voted against; around fifty abstained.

A parallel question arises about Lib Dem MPs, all whom voted in favour of an early election. They, unlike their Labour counterparts, do at least all want to squelch Brexit, but it's far from obvious that a process likely to end with a three-figure Tory majority is an effective way of achieving this. Remainers’s hopes that May is creating room to ease a softened Brexit through the Commons are probably moonshine; one could argue to similar but opposite effect about a hardened Brexit. Still, the Lib Dems can campaign on a Remain-friendly platform and hope to gain a few seats.

No parallel vision melding principle with electoral salvation exists to comfort Labour MPs. I can think of seven possible explanations for their endorsement of this pointless election. Some may apply to different bits of the PLP; several may apply to the same members at once:

1. delusionally, they think they can win the election;
2. they think it will entrench, harden etc. Brexit;
3. the think it will undermine, soften etc. Brexit;
4. they buy the ‘accelerationist’ view that the worse things get in the short term, the sooner revolution will dawn;
5. they know that doom beckons, but think they have to pretend to think that Labour will win;
6. they embrace doom with the antinomian levity that often greets impending catastrophe;
7. Jeremy Corbyn, delusionally, thinks he can win the election, while other Labour MPs see in it an unexpectedly early chance to get rid of him.

It would be interesting to see how closely the 174 MPs who voted to dissolve Parliament overlap with the 172 who supported a motion of no confidence in Corbyn after the referendum last June. The latter contingent does not include Corbyn himself, though I hesitate to put much past him in the way of political ineptitude. The trouble with this explanation, as applied to the Corbyn-hating wing of the PLP, is that it can work only if a major part of it suffers annihilation at the polls. But the other explanations also have to be consistent with that prospect.

Labour is hobbled by straining to avoid being so Brexity that it alienates its educated metro-liberal fanbase, while not being so Remainy as to alienate its working-class supporters. The latter's support for Brexit may be overstated by those in the party's various leadership circles who think it can't resile on Article 50. But even if it's an imaginary dilemma, the party gives every impression of having impaled itself upon it.

Is this the end of Labour as we know it? Time will tell. Parties do die. Take for instance the American Whig party, which disintegrated in the 1850s over the free soil issue. Differences over whether to extend slavery into the new territories split the Whigs into northern and southern factions. In the north, many ex-Whigs, including Abraham Lincoln, joined the new Republican party. In the south, many joined the nativist Know Nothing party. Labour faces a schism between its nativists and know somethings. The campaign is likely to expose further the tensions between them.


  • 20 April 2017 at 12:25pm
    Joe Morison says:
    If only politicians were honest. The large majority of Labour MPs believe Brexit is going to be a disaster, they should say so and fight against it. The party would lose support in the beginning, but if time proved them right, that support would be more than won back; and if time shows them wrong then they don’t deserve power.

  • 20 April 2017 at 12:37pm
    Marmaduke Jinks says:
    Politicians may indeed be dishonest but they are also keen to continue being (elected) politicians. A loss of support over Brexit may well result in long-term gains but that would put many current MPs out of a job in the interim.
    My guess is most Labour MPs see the snap election as a way of demonstrating Corbyn's unelectability.

    • 21 April 2017 at 4:22am
      Joe Morison says: @ Marmaduke Jinks
      You're right that some MPs would lose their jobs, but if they put that before the national interest then they are not fit for purpose (a hideous phrase but it seems appropriate here).

      Political parties have to get elected, but they also have to be true to themselves. It's a balance, but nowadays (or is that just rose tinted nostalgia?) they seem to err in favour of the former. Clinton and his policy of triangulation have a lot to answer for.

  • 20 April 2017 at 1:01pm
    sol_adelman says:
    None of those explain why Labour / Lib Dem MPs think they'll achieve a better result this June than they would have done in 2020. Surely in four years' time there'll be no doubt that Theresa May has no answers to Britain's problems. Their preference for an election now still makes no sense to me.

  • 20 April 2017 at 1:04pm
    rolandino says:
    I too am baffled. It is literally turkeys voting for Christmas.

    Why didn't they vote against, keep May where she is, and relentlessly press the point about the police investigations into alleged election corruption?

    By voting for, I believe this puts the CPS in an awkward position, and provides much smokescreen.

    It's insane. I'd love someone to come up with a decent, coherent, not-at-all-bonkers explanation.

    • 20 April 2017 at 2:05pm
      James Alexander says: @ rolandino
      They really, really love elections, they live for them, get high on them, lose their heads at the prospect.

    • 21 April 2017 at 4:24am
      Joe Morison says: @ rolandino
      I don't wish to be excessively pedantic, rolandino, but this is the LRB. They are not literally turkeys voting for Christmas.

    • 21 April 2017 at 8:53am
      James Alexander says: @ Joe Morison
      Right on Joe, I and many are with you. However, I often want to point out to mistaken posters that this is a blog, absolutely not the LRB. Pedantic?

    • 23 April 2017 at 3:47pm
      Joe Morison says: @ James Alexander
      Perhaps, just a little, James.

  • 20 April 2017 at 1:50pm
    Stu Bry says:
    "It would be interesting to see how closely the 174 MPs who voted to dissolve Parliament overlap with the 172 who supported a motion of no confidence in Corbyn after the referendum last June. The latter contingent does not include Corbyn himself, though I hesitate to put much past him in the way of political ineptitude."

    Seriously 30 seconds on google....

    Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley), Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme), Jim Fitzpatrick, (Poplar and Limehouse), Fiona Mactaggart (Slough), Graham Stringer (Blackley and Broughton) are the only MPs who voted no confidence in Corbyn and against the election.

    The reason Corbyn and the vast majority of the PLP backed the election is because even if they had opposed there would still have been an election either via a staged vote of no confidence or the removal of the Fixed Terms Parliament Act.

    The leader of the opposition cannot refuse the opportunity to challenge the government. That you think this was an option is worrying.

    • 20 April 2017 at 3:07pm
      Glen Newey says: @ Stu Bry
      Umm ... not really. One way of 'challenging' the Government would have been to oppose a gratuitous election which serves the Tory party's rather than the national interest. He could have argued, reasonably enough, that the time to have an election is when the Brexit terms are known. The SNP abstained in the vote. Yvette Cooper shredded May's case for an election now yesterday in the Commons.

      It's a further indication of Corbyn's ineptitude. The idea that he's still trying to uphold the dignity of the office of Leader of HM Opposition at this point is slightly quaint. His office even refused to say, when asked by the Mirror, whether they had whipped the vote. See:

      I assume for a lot of the 174, no. 7 applies (in which case the question whether they thought their chances would be better now than in 2020 is beside the point). As it is written in scripture, greater hate hath no man, that he'll lay down his own ass if he can take his enemy's with him.

    • 20 April 2017 at 4:05pm
      Sam Dorner says: @ Stu Bry
      I cannot agree with Stu Bry. If the Conservatives were to have removed the Fixed-Terms Parliament Act or staged a vote of no confidence there would have been far more outrage at their cynical manipulation of the rules and May's U-turn than there is already. I don't think they would have dared, even with the backing of the The Sun and The Mail.
      The leader of the opposition can reject May's challenge simply by saying he thinks the fixed-term act is a good idea and an improvement on the previous convention which favoured the ruling party. That would have been perfectly plausible.
      My hypothesis is that the fixed-term act has not yet been intuited in the political sphere -- it is too new. Every article I have read since Wednesday's announcement refers to May "calling an election". Something she didn't and can't do: parliament has to do it (and did). Equally, all the reports on Wednesday simply assumed the election would take place before it had been confirmed by parliament on Thursday. Take for example the Guardian, which had its news section "Election 2017" up and running by Wednesday afternoon.
      By using the old, pre-Act rhetoric and terminology the politicians and journalists made it easy to ignore the fact that things work differently now. I find it completely plausible that following disastrous election results for Labour in June everyone will realise that the Fixed-Terms Parliament Act was introduced for good and proper reasons. From then on it will be properly respected as part of the constitutional set-up. But by then it will be too late.

    • 20 April 2017 at 4:35pm
      JamesBaldwin says: @ Stu Bry
      You're right that the Tories could still have forced through an election, but either of the other options would have been more embarrassing for them. Voting no confidence in themselves? That's not a good start to an election campaign. Or else, repealing the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, with only a slim majority if Labour and LibDems voted against, would look dodgy and serve to highlight the cynicism of May's move.

    • 20 April 2017 at 5:50pm
      Stu Bry says: @ Glen Newey
      As soon as the Prime Minister opened her mouth on Monday morning there was going to be an election. To have begun the campaign by losing an argument over whether or not to have an election at all would have been far worse than the benefit of winning a few technical points that would completely bypass most swing voters.

      Yvette Cooper has the distinction of voting for the Iraq War, against Iraq inquiries, for war in Libya, for war in Syria, against an arms embargo to Yemen and abstaining on the Welfare bill. I have zero interest in anything she says, you may as well quote Jacob Rees Mogg or Andrea Leadsom.

      The leader of the opposition has to take any opportunity to challenge the government. How can the Labour Party say to the victims of austerity 'sit tight until 2020'? How can they demand an end to the NHS crisis if they are not willing to go to the country? It is incomprehensible.

    • 20 April 2017 at 5:55pm
      Stu Bry says: @ Sam Dorner
      " I don’t think they would have dared, even with the backing of the The Sun and The Mail."

      They manipulated their own leadership contest to bypass their own members. They would call the election by another option and the press would make the narrative 'cunning May' and 'cowardly Corbyn'.

      "I find it completely plausible that following disastrous election results for Labour in June everyone will realise that the Fixed-Terms Parliament Act was introduced for good and proper reasons."

      For good and proper reasons? It was introduced by Cameron as cynical tool to protect his sham coalition.

    • 20 April 2017 at 7:20pm
      Stu Bry says: @ JamesBaldwin
      More embarrassing?

      Pathological liar Boris is Foreign Secretary. Liam Fox should be sat in a prison cell but instead sits in the cabinet. They seem to have completely washed their hands of Northern Ireland.

      They are only interested in maintaining dominance an increasing exploitation. Any means to that end is acceptable.

    • 20 April 2017 at 7:46pm
      Sam Dorner says: @ Stu Bry
      "They manipulated their own leadership contest to bypass their own members."

      Good point, perhaps I underestimate their audacity. However, I am not ultimately convinced -- one issue is an internal party issue, the other is constitutional

      As I see it Cameron didn't introduce the Fixed Term Act; it was an achievement of the junior coalition partner (I'm not saying the coalition worked -- it didn't, but that doesn't make the Act worthless).

      I get your general point. But for me a central problem is that the executive is getting away with much too much and parliament just makes way. Your analysis reinforces my view. It's better late than never for MPs to start opposing, Thursday was the day it could have started.

  • 20 April 2017 at 2:07pm
    Rikkeh says:
    I think the logic goes that if you're Leader of the Opposition, you can't turn down the opportunity to go to the country, as to do so would show that you're not a Prime Minister in waiting. Corbyn had also backed himself into a corner previously by saying "bring it on" to an early election.

    Nevertheless, there was the potential for tactical wins which was sadly not taken. "It sounds as if the Prime Minister has no confidence in her own Government. The right thing to do, therefore, is for her to bring a motion of no confidence, which the Labour Party will vote for and speak enthusiastically in favour of". "We will back the motion...when the CPS's findings into the election expenses investigation have been made public. It is too soon to do so beforehand, as we do not know which likely candidates are to be charged".

  • 20 April 2017 at 4:31pm
    Graucho says:
    Ostensibly this has been called because the date for the next election was going to coincide with the most difficult point in the Brexit process which could have cost the government dear at the polls so ...

    8) May is smart enough to read a calendar and Corbyn is too stupid

    • 20 April 2017 at 4:48pm
      SuZ says: @ Graucho
      The article is about why Labour acceded in May's decision, not why she herself decided on an immediate election (the reason for which is the current opinion polls).

    • 20 April 2017 at 10:34pm
      Graucho says: @ SuZ
      Hence the word ostensibly. The bit about the timing is, however, true and apart from the polls, is why labour shouldn't have acceded to her wishes. It isn't the job of the opposition to make life easy for the government. It is their job to maximise their chances of winning an election.

  • 21 April 2017 at 10:11am
    JWA says:
    JEZ WE CAN PEOPLE! It's coming home, it's coming home, Socialism is coming home. 90% top rate tax, land value tax, full automisation now, 4 day week, nationalise the banks, shut down the tax havens, junk trident, clobber the rentiers, Jez is the gnome that can - as for the milksop libs - we've spent two generations biting our tongues having to back your war criminals & city arse-lickers - about time you had out backs for once instead of throwing your toys out the pram.

  • 21 April 2017 at 11:24am
    Simon Wood says:
    Yez, once more the right-wing press in the form of the so-called London Review of Books sez Jez can't win, but he has won.

    He has entered the so-called Labour Party and given birth to drone-powered liberty from injustice. He's literally in it to Corbyn it - er, compost it, from which the Christmas tree of freedom will sprout.

  • 21 April 2017 at 2:58pm
    andrewjmc says:
    With reference to the support of working class Labour supporters in Brexity areas: Professor John Curtice, who's generally believed to know a thing or two about British politics, thinks this is overstated, as he explains on the What UK Knows blog .

    Which suggests that either [1] Labour hasn't done the analysis, or [2] has done but chooses to ignore it, or has [3] better private polling that John Curtice hasn't seen or is unaware of.

    Unfortunately I suspect that [3] is unlikely and [2] implies a level of machination that the current Labour Party seems incapable of.

    I'm with the commenters who think Labour should have abstained, for all the reasons @Rikkeh outlines; if May wanted not to fight an election in 2020 that badly, they could have extracted a price for that. Somehow I have a feeling that Harold Wilson would have worked out how the Fixed Term Parliaments Act worked in seven years, and how to use it to political advantage.

    • 21 April 2017 at 2:58pm
      andrewjmc says: @ andrewjmc
      John Curtice's blog post is here:

  • 21 April 2017 at 3:11pm
    XopherO says:
    Well, perhaps the only plus from a Labour defeat will be the weeding out of the Blairites, the morons who voted for the Iraq war (did none of them know about the difficulty of arming and delivering chemical weapons? Maybe I have an advantage in that I once studied chemistry at uni, but it doesn't take much research to know. They voted for an illegal war anyway.) and those who voted with the Tories for austerity. That they are still there and have the temerity to criticise Corbyn is beyond belief, have they no humility? Corbyn is way off being a great leader, but who could replace him who has a decent record of voting? It will probably be a big purge, and it will be the fault of the disloyal Blairites. And we should remember that Labour has won more elections with a left-of-centre leader. Atlee (2) Wilson (4). Foot is the only loser (1). The right wing losers form a very long list, starting with the appalling Gaitskell. Blair is the only exception, but the Tories were in exceptional disarray.

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