The past week has been a rollercoaster ride for Labour politicians.
Last Thursday’s election results were in many ways disappointing for Labour. We lost the byelection in Hartlepool, and council seats across the country. We know as a party that we have to learn the lessons of these losses, listening carefully to what voters tell us about why they didn’t vote for us, and what they expect of Labour if we are to regain their trust in future.
But there were very positive results for Labour too, including in the Welsh Senedd, and the election of 11 out of 13 metro mayors – not least a stunning victory for Andy Burnham here in Greater Manchester. And in Trafford, we won 4 more council seats from the Conservatives, and lost a fifth by only 19 votes, an enormous achievement by council leader Andy Western and our superb Labour council candidates. Congratulations everyone – and thank you to residents who supported us.
After the excitement of the election results, I looked forward to a quiet weekend. But rumours began to swirl around that Labour leader Keir Starmer would reshuffle his shadow cabinet. While I am delighted to continue in my role as shadow secretary of state for education, reshuffles are always an unsettling and difficult experience for Labour MPs, and for the staff who work for us.
I headed back to Westminster at the start of the week, and on my usual walk into work along the Thames, I was struck by the spectacle of a huge traffic jam gridlocking the streets – something I hadn’t seen since the start of the first lockdown last year. Eventually, I realised it was due to road closures ahead of the Queen’s Speech to parliament on Tuesday. The speech sets out the government’s plans for the coming session, and is usually an immense spectacle of tiaras, robes, ushers, an official known as Black Rod coming from the House of Lords to bang on the door of the House of Commons, and general flummery. This year, however, the pandemic put paid to most of that – only a handful of MPs were able to participate, and the Queen wore ordinary day clothes.
After the speech had been delivered, MPs embarked on a 6-day long marathon debate on its contents. I opened Thursday’s debate for Labour, raising my concerns about two proposed bills relating to my education brief, including very troubling plans for a Freedom of Speech bill which will apply to universities and student unions, and which could give a platform to Holocaust deniers. Labour will work hard to oppose these dangerous proposals.
The Freedom of Speech bill is a classic example of the Conservatives’ wrongheaded priorities. What we needed were bills to prevent bosses using ‘fire and rehire’ contracts to water down terms and conditions at work, and to protect elderly and disabled people and their families from eye wateringly high social care costs. But, despite all sorts of promises from the Prime Minister in recent months that he had these proposals ready to go, we didn’t get them. Another bitter letdown by the Conservative government.
But I know constituents will be interested in a couple of bills that will proceed in this session, including one on animal welfare, and a racial equalities bill that I expect will implement the contents of the flawed Sewell report published earlier this year. The report suggested there was a positive side to our country’s colonial history, and that institutional racism is no longer an issue. That has rightly caused huge concern, and when it’s published, I will be examining the bill very carefully.
All in all, it’s been a pretty full-on week in politics, and I’m very glad to be on a quiet train on my way home to Manchester. Next week, with further easing of covid restrictions, more people will be out and about, and I’m expecting more MPs will be back in parliament. But I hope that won’t mean a return to regular traffic jams and that the trains don’t get much busier!
Finally, may I take the opportunity to wish my Muslim friends and constituents a belated Eid Mubarak! After another Ramadan and Eid spent in lockdown, I hope we will soon have much to celebrate together.