By Virtue Signalling on the Overseas Operation Bill, Keir Starmer Is Making a Historically Repeated Mistake

Pablo John discusses the Labour Party's contentious decision to whip for abstention votes on the Overseas Operations Bill.

MPs have a weakness for virtue signalling. No I don’t mean the type of “virtue signalling” the far right claims is destroying our society (which essentially boils down to acknowledging women and black people exist, casting a woman as Doctor Who, or being a footballer who happens to care about children going hungry). Nor do I mean the traditional definition of virtue signalling; supporting a good thing to make yourself appear good, rather than because you genuinely support “the thing”.

No, the hot new political tactic amongst the left and centre left is the art of reverse virtue signalling; a term I just made up. What is reverse virtue signalling I hear you cry? Well it is the art of knowingly supporting a bad policy in the aim of showing how moderate/sensible/reasonable/(insert buzzword) you are.

A fantastic example would be the much maligned 2015 welfare bill vote. Labour MPs abstained on a Tory bill cutting benefits and penalising the most vulnerable in our society. Did the party abstain because it believed it the right thing to do? Not quite, Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper both spoke out against the bill, and then abstained on it. Rising star of the moderate wing Wes Streeting later said the abstention represented the party losing its “nerve” and moral compass”. Despite knowing it was a bad idea all these MPs abstained, why?

In justifying the bill, acting leader Harriet Harman said “The temptation is always to oppose everything … No one is going to listen to us if they think we are not listening to them.” MPs didn’t abstain because it was good policy, or because it was the right thing to do. They abstained, despite their principles, to show how much they were “listening”. Very moderate and very sensible. I’m sure the disabled people getting their benefits cut were very glad Labour was listening.

Why do I bring up a five year old bill? Because Keir Starmer is making the same mistakes and using the same failed tactic with the Overseas Operations Bill. Starmer ordered MPs to abstain in the vote. A bill which critics say brings in a presumption against prosecution for British soldiers serving abroad, including war crimes and torture. The bill possibly breaks international law.

On Labour benches, I see few defending the bill on the grounds of policy. Instead there tends to be two justifications. The first justification being that Labour needs to win back patriotic, pro-military voters, by showing it is “tough”. The second justification is the bill is going to pass anyway so there’s no point in voting against.

Both these arguments are reasonable but raise one question; why not vote for the bill?

If Labour wants to win back pro-military voters, why not vote for the bill? I doubt a red-wall voter depositing his ballot in 2024, will vote Labour because Labour abstained on a bill four years prior. The bill hasn't helped Labour's electoral prospects, it has cost the leadership its image of unity, and several good frontbenchers.

And if the bill is going to pass anyway, why turn up at all? Why oppose anything? If the opposition isn’t going to hold the Government to account why don’t we all go home for five years?

Like the welfare bill in 2015, the overseas operations bill is a bad bill. Like 2015 abstaining achieves very little. It doesn’t make Labour more electable. It doesn’t help create good policy. And it doesn’t hold the Government to account. Abstaining is a meaningless gesture to show how tough and unwoke the Labour Party is now; if only there was a word for that.

Pablo John is Co-Chair of Leeds Labour Students.

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