The decision by the government to give three free votes on vital elements in the human fertilisation and embryology bill so that some senior members of the government don’t feel the need to resign on ‘moral’ grounds is both sad and problematic. It suggests that a religiously held belief is more important, or more substantial, than a non-religiously held belief. In the immediate context, and moving beyond the theoretical arguments, is demonstrates a disregard for those loyal members of the Parliamentary Labour Party who voted through the abolition of the 10p rate of tax against their better judgement.
I do not want to go into detail on the 10p rate on tax, but we all know instinctively how this decision feels and we all know why. Helping the poor and disadvantaged is part of the lifeblood of the Labour movement. As a principle it is ingrained within the fabric of our party, and compelling arguments have been voiced on how this principle has been compromised by the abolition of the lower tax rate.
But, as is the reality of being in a political party, sometimes members of parliament are asked regardless of their beliefs to support their party, government and its programme. For government ministers, this is taken as read. If a minister feels their conscience to be too compromised by a decision, as did Robin Cook, John Denham and Lord Hunt over Iraq, they can resign. If they can reconcile their beliefs with the bill, they can support it and remain in government. Essentially, these are the available options.
Not so, it seems, if their conscience is a ‘moral’ one.
When did embryos become a matter of conscience in the Labour party when poverty reduction is not? Especially when the scientific research involved could cure a range of devastating and degenerative diseases such as MS, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and cystic fibrosis? In the government’s own words, the legislation would, ‘save lives and help to cure and treat diseases’.
It is vital that there is a role in public life for those of particular faiths and none but the distinction between the importance of their beliefs is problematic. The pursuit of social justice, poverty reduction and greater equality are the reasons why I joined the Labour party, why I continue to champion our Labour government and why I go out campaigning week in, week out. Being pro-choice is part of my progressive values, just as believing in gay equality and gender equality are. Not only are these views that I am proud to hold, but I believe that embedding them within the values of the country makes for a fairer, a more just, and a stronger society. Are these not matters of conscience? Are these not strongly held beliefs? Should these not be treated on an equal footing as the strongly held beliefs of other comrades?
The broader political repercussions of the decision to grant a free vote are problematic in themselves, but I also believe that it will cause substantial damage to MPs in certain constituencies, who wish to vote in favour of the human fertilisation and embryology bill. With MPs having to individually go out on a limb (for issues the Government has written into its own Bill).
Based on the tone and content of literature being sent by organised lobbies against the bill, it is highly likely that that many MPs will be the victims of vicious personal attacks, with their personal vote giving enough people the excuse to attempt to vote them out of office at the next election.
The free vote decision may save us from losing some members of the cabinet but will it risk us losing some vital members of the Parliamentary Labour Party?