Stella Creasy is the Labour and Co-operative MP for Walthamstow.
A Labour MP writing for ConservativeHome? Don’t panic. This article is not trying to persuade you of the merits of crossing the floor. It is about the virtues of ‘crossing the streams’ – or what happens when two implacably opposed forces are focused on a mutual target. Of why, given the morass of Brexit-based legislation which will dominate Parliament for years to come, opportunities for progress on anything else cannot be lost. One such chance for change is coming in the Children and Social Work bill. It is about giving every child a legal right to learn about sexual consent as part of safeguarding them. For the benefit of the kids, I’m asking you to do something uncomfortable and work with your opponents – and to do it because it will help define our disparities not our similarities.
Political parties at their best exist not for tribal historical reasons, but because they represent contrasting perspectives and value sets. They give the public meaningful options to choose between for the future of our country. However, knowing why we’re in distinctive political movements shouldn’t stop us co-operating when it suits our aims or our ambitions for Britain overlap. In recent months such cross-party teamwork has been increasingly in short supply. Indeed, with Brexit causing angst across all our political parties, the temptation to lash out at traditional enemies becomes even stronger as a form of comfort campaigning. After all, sometimes it can feel like we cannot get it right whatever we do. The public say they hate political bickering and arguments – and they also detest the political insipidity of there being little apparent difference between us, too.
For a backbench opposition MP of any persuasion, making change happen is difficult at the best of times. The loss of any space in which to find common ground as Brexit swallows up all available time will mean our capacity to actually get anything done will rest increasingly on the goodwill of civil servants or Number 10 alone. Some will say this is simply ‘to the victor the spoils’ in a democracy; that we should each focus on winning office instead if we want to be able to make our own priorities for laws a reality. I’ve every intention of trying to ensure Labour is battle ready for the next election. Yet this doesn’t mean we have to believe no-one else has any good ideas and act accordingly.
Even those on the Government benches have a vested interest in channels of potential collaboration. Not just to curtail the fabled power of the whips, but because perpetual open hostility dulls the shine of all our principles. What if, in showing why our divisions are important on issues like the ideology of markets vs cooperation, or liberalism vs social democracy, we also found common ground when we could? Not because now we are all so unpopular any vote for us is a bonus or political parties are a bad idea. Instead because this helps to highlight when and where our differences lie – and, crucially, why they matter.
Nowhere are the benefits of doing so clearer than working on tackling child protection issues. Across the House there are members who support the provision of sex and relationship education (SRE) to all young people. Concerns about children living in a world of Snapchat, Tinder and sexting are widespread, as is recognition that teaching them about healthy relationships and what abuse is can help victims come forward. Several Select Committee Chairs from both Labour and Conservative have pledged their support. Yet attempts at cross-party consensus are breaking down as time runs out to get this right.
As Opposition MPs our job is to hold the Government to account and to help create the space in which progress can be made on such an issue. Government backbench MPs in turn have a vital role to play pressing their leadership to take the chance for change. With a legislative opportunity to do just that entering its final stages, the question is: will we be prepared to act? As yet the Government is prevaricating on the pledge they made at second reading of the Children and Social Work bill to bring forward proposals on this, let alone offer legislation – without amendments to this bill and a likely packed Brexit schedule it is difficult to see when or how else any statutory guarantee of provision of SRE can be introduced. At report stage backbenchers must collaborate or yet again party political point scoring will win the day at the expense of children’s rights.
Brexit is going to be huge. Its going to dominate all discussions for years to come. Let us not let it also mean that all we can look back on is a barrage of constitutional arguments. I’ve tabled New Clause One on this issue to the Children and Social Work Bill to get a vote on this proposal through in February. However, I’ll happily withdraw it if the Government offers alternative legislation that covers all kids and all schools in an inclusive and age appropriate way that I could back instead. This is an olive branch to every Conservative who knows that SRE is the right thing to do for all children and why that doesn’t make them liable to join Labour – for their sake, please don’t send that branch back singed.