February Political Intelligence
In the spirit of equality, Baroness Prosser asked Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to amend the Equality Act 2010 in relation to equal pay. The question opened the Equal Pay debate in the Chamber of Lords, which scrutinised the adequacy of solutions provided to address the pay gap. In explaining why there is an issue, a parliamentarian drew attention to the lack of formal recognition given to home-based workers, and how this excludes them from receiving benefits granted to ‘traditional’ workers. There was special mention of home-based textile workers, who are mostly female and employed by their kin. With the expected, but nonetheless disappointing response that recognised what the government had done but gave no indication of further action, MPs expressed their dissatisfaction with not enough being done to address the pay gap.
A debate in the House of Commons called out the BBC for their (now revised) unpaid work trials and exploitation of young freelancers. With an optimistic attitude, Stuart Malcolm McDonald MP for the Scottish National Party defended his Trial Work Periods (Prohibition) Bill that was shut down by the former Minister, to forbid unpaid work trials. The Bill is especially relevant in the creative and service industries, where work is freelance and has no security of a salary or the support of an HR department.
Kerry McCarthy Labour MP for Bristol East asked, “What recent assessment his Department has made of the prevalence of human rights and labour abuses in the global supply chains of UK supermarkets?” McCarthy challenged the government’s competence in responding to the matter, calling for a stronger stance. Kelly Tolhurst’s examples of favourable initiatives taken by retailers and retail associations, such as the British Retail Consortium’s “Stronger Together”, were not convincing evidence that the government was taking action against abuse – more has to be done than chasing companies to submit their modern day slavery statements.
The decline of high streets was addressed with the Santander Closures and Local Communities debate, where MPs channelled the frustrations and fears of their local constituents in relation to the closure of Santander local branches. Themes included the loss of jobs, the worry of decreased human interaction in banking and the neglect and downturn of once thriving high streets, leaving the vulnerable more vulnerable and further marginalising neglected areas. Dr Rupa Huq Labour MP for Ealing Central and Acton argued, “Our streets are being turned into ghost towns. The recommendation in Acton was to go to the post office. That has closed too. Where are people meant to go?”
The Financial Secretary to the Treasury Mel Stride made a statement on the Move to Digital Tax (MTD). Pointing to how the oldest businesses in the UK, such as Bridport-based butcher R J Balson & Son established just six years into the reign of Henry the VIII, were already transitioning to digital tax. If they started with parchment then there’s no excuse for businesses that have been using paper. As well as prompting the insightful observation that government is obsessed with Henry VIII, the statement led opposition to urge that small and medium enterprises not get left behind in the transition. With the looming and uncertain changes that will be necessary post-Brexit, is it appropriate to expect for the transition to be concluded by 2019?
In a bold act of rebellion, seven Labour MPs broke away from the Party and united as the Independent Party. Declaring their loss of faith and disappointment in a Party that no longer represents their values, Luciana Berger, Ann Coffey, Mike Gapes, Chris Leslie, Gavin Shuker, Angela Smith and Chuka Umunna summoned a press conference to announce their resignation and intention to sit in Parliament as a “new, Independent Group of MPs.”
Speaking for the group, Berger announced that despite representing different parts of the country, being born from different generations and being of different backgrounds, the Labour defectors share the same values, justifying their union. In addition to Labour’s weak stance in dealing with anti-Semitism within the Party, the seven MPs – referred to as ‘The Gang of Seven’, alluding to the Gang of Four, or the ex-Labour MPs who founded the Social Democratic Party in 1988 – are united in their pro-EU-ness, their opposition to Corbyn and a set of 11 values which they claim have been forgotten by the traditional Parties and overall political system.
Joined by Joan Ryan and ex-Conservatives Anna Soubry, Heidi Allen and Sarah Wollaston, the Independent Group is a symptom to the divisions present in UK politics, both within and outside political parties. The left vs. right, Labour vs. Tory, us vs. them narrative has become too simplistic to capture the tensions in the political landscape; with Brexit being only one of the many polarising issues that need to be addressed by politicians. It will be interesting to see whether the Independent Group will succeed in bringing together a fractured and traumatised electorate, disappointed by the empty promises made in the referendum campaigns and years of austerity.
It will also be interesting to see how the electorate will respond to these defections, as voter alliance is typically placed with the party rather than the MP. Leslie and Smith have both lost a vote of no confidence by a branch of Nottingham East, under the premise of disloyalty and deceit towards the party. Shuker was also contested, and had a vote of no confidence passed against him in 2018 with only 3 votes in his favour. With that in mind, it is necessary to question how long their rebellion will last: whether it will be forgotten in the next election or will pave the way for a real shift in the UK politics?