And so here we go again. It’s a terrible shame that politics can become a playground where the public are deliberately manipulated by cynical politicians. It’s a simple game, where unwary observers are exploited by carefully planned manoeuvres in Parliament, playing to their assumed prejudices, and without them having any idea it’s going on.
Many will already be aware of how this process operates – but just in case, it works like this. The Opposition puts forward motions for debate and then votes on those motions on ‘Opposition Days’ in Parliament. These have no legislative impact at all, but are planned to cause political upset for governing-side MPs.
The motions to these debates will be put in a form something like this: “That this House thanks and commends public sector workers, particularly nurses, doctors, care workers and teachers, for their extraordinary efforts on behalf of the nation; calls upon the Government to ensure that they are paid a sufficient wage for their workload; condemns the Government for its appalling mistreatment of those in the public sector, and demands the resignation of the Health Secretary.” Or suchlike.
So there will be a benign motion, wrapped around a Trojan horse, attacking the Government. Naturally, as the Opposition well know and have planned, those of us on the Government side of the House will obviously have to vote against the motion.
Then the next day the press favourable to the Opposition – the Guardian, Independent and so on, who are in on the game – will howl confected outrage, saying that Tory MPs voted against thanking nurses, doctors, care workers and teachers for their work, and also voted against them being given a sufficient wage.
Following that, on social media there will be more genuine outrage, and a natural sense of bafflement that anyone could be so appallingly callous as to vote in this way. All those with their viewpoint already leaning towards the thought - and many more who are just toying with the idea - will think that it’s now clear that Tory MPs are the embodiment of evil. People will have no idea that they have been played by others for political advantage.
And this is what happened, for the nth time, this week. Although it was quite a mild one, it seems to have had the political effect that was intended. Here was the non-legislative Opposition motion:
“That this House notes the damage caused by Storms Ciara, Dennis and Jorge and expresses thanks to workers from the Environment Agency, emergency services, local councils and volunteers; and calls for Ministers to set up an independent review into the floods, including the Government’s response, the adequacy of the funding provided for flood defences and prevention, difficulties facing homes and businesses with getting insurance and what lessons need to be learnt in light of the climate emergency and the increased likelihood of flooding in the future.”
It was quite a mild one, but you may have spotted the Trojan horse. By voting against the motion, it would look as if we didn’t want to thank workers from the EA, emergency services, volunteers and so on. And that we thought that a flood review wasn’t a good idea. But by voting for the motion, the entire House would have been agreeing that funding for floods was inadequate. And that an independent review is needed.
In actual fact, flood funding has never been higher. Nearly £5 billion is already due to be spent on flood defences in England alone in the next five years, with another £5.2 billion expected to be announced in the Budget on Wednesday, in addition to a £120m Winter Defence Repair Fund and much localised spending, as we’ve seen here in our area with the Somerset Rivers Authority.
In terms of a review, people may not realise that no one’s against that plan. We’ve already had the independent Pitt Review in 2008, following which local and national response were improved by Local Resilience Forums, then the Cross Review in 2018 and the publication of new guidance on multi-agency flood plans. And after that, the National Flood Resilience Review in 2016 from which came the new National Flood Response Centre. Here in Somerset, we’ve had the creation of the Somerset Rivers Authority to manage our waterway catchments, as a result of which we’ve not seen a repeat of the 2013 and 2014 winter floods.
But the motion in Parliament wasn’t really about a flood review. Neither was it about thanking those workers who help us in time of despair and disaster. Its intention was exactly what it achieved in the press and then on social media - to make Government-side MPs appear neither to want to thank those who provide our flood defences, nor to set up a review into flooding.
We’ve seen this happen many times before – and I’m sure it happened when the Conservatives were in opposition. The intention is to use such parliamentary procedures to maliciously manipulate public opinion in a particular direction.
The Opposition know that no member of the governing party can vote for this motion. Such votes, or similar hostile amendments to Bills, are put forward fairly regularly. They are all put forward with political intent, and with the collusion of friendly journalists (or at least with a knowledge of how the media will react). This is the circular, self-referential world that politics has become. The ordinary man or woman in the street has no idea what’s going on and are the real victims – their good natures and sensible intentions have, I’m afraid, been rather cynically – and carefully - exploited.