“Labour have yet again chosen to abstain on a key vote,” Alex Salmond declared in his usually understated manner. “They need to find a backbone and become an effective opposition in parliament.”
It will come as little surprise that I disagree with Salmond: in this case, it’s because he happens to be objectively incorrect. Because Labour’s collective abstention on the EU purdah vote was both good politics from a principle point of view, and very good opposition politics at the same time.
This purdah issue is a red herring. It is nothing more than yet another in a long and exhausting series of internal battles within the party that, despite Cameron’s best efforts when he first became leader, loves nothing more than banging on Europe. Morally speaking, Labour holding its hands up and saying “I’m Paul and this is between y’all” is far and away the right move.
But like I said, it’s very good opposition politics at the same time. Europe is the Tories one true weak spot. If they don’t tear themselves apart because of it, they’ll be in power for the next decade and a half at least. And I’m extremely heartened by the fact that Labour have understood that the best way to go about giving this the best chance of happening is to – most of the time anyhow – just stand back and watch the dust fly. They’ll be helping Britain remain in the EU while not sullying itself by getting involved in internal Conservative Party handbags at dawn silliness. Plus, while abstentions like we saw yesterday help Cameron in the short term, medium to long term they only show up the clear water between Cameron/Osborne and a huge section of the Tory parliamentary party. It’s this gulf that could lead to a split in the Conservative Party – or at the very least, it is the only possible way it’s going to happen anytime soon. The fact that Labour can jump on this fault line while simultaneously pursuing its goal of avoiding Brexit is a political gift. One I’m surprised they’ve managed to seize, given their behaviour post-election. Probably the work of Harman – relax, Bill Cash, Labour will be back to playing silly buggers once Andy is anointed.
Sometimes being a good opposition involves just sitting on your hands and letting the governing party tear itself to shreds. Alex Salmond appears to be too busy trying to pass off casual sexism in the chamber as some sort of intrinsic element of Scottish culture to notice.