Valerie Vaz: “In my role, it’s about not letting my party or my constituents down”
Since the general election the Labour party has proven increasingly adept at using parliamentary tools to expose the government. As Shadow Leader of the Commons, Valerie Vaz is determined to ramp up the pressure next year. She talks to Sebastian Whale
Thursday mornings in the Commons are a highlight for political obsessives. The Business Statement sees the chamber updated on what’s coming up at Westminster, while MPs in turn hold the government to account on a diverse set of topics. For Valerie Vaz, the shadow Leader of the House, it marks the crunch point of her week.
The blend of the humorous and the serious is why many politicians and journalists enjoy watching the hour-long exchanges, which often illicit news of a consequential or amusing nature. But there is an added burden on those at the despatch box to meet the comedic standards of some of their illustrious predecessors.
How does Vaz handle the pressure? “Often people remind me I am not a comedian,” she replies with a chuckle, sitting at her desk in parliament. “I try to make it light-hearted, because I know people quite like the session. But it’s such a serious time and there are so many issues that are coming up that I feel I have to raise them.”
Vaz, the former solicitor and sister of fellow Labour MP Keith Vaz, was elected to represent Walsall South in 2010 after first running to enter parliament in 1987. She joined the Shadow Cabinet in October 2016 in what remains her only frontbench job to date. She speaks of the transition with typical and endearing modesty, suggesting that at 62-years-old, she does not harbour the confidence of some of her Labour colleagues.
“Not that I don’t have energy, but it’s the confidence of youth. Whereas when you get older you start to doubt yourself or second guess yourself and think, have I done this right?”
Has she grown into the role over the past 14 months? “I don’t know if I feel confident each Thursday session. It’s because new things arise and these past few weeks have been very, very busy, and it’s really trying to do the best you can with the role. For me it’s about not letting people down, not letting my party down and certainly ultimately not letting my constituents down on their issues.”
Since the 2017 election, Labour has become more street smart. The party is utilising the parliamentary tools at its disposal to expose divisions in the depleted government benches. This has been shown by holding debates on social care through to universal credit, and helping to force the publication of Brexit impact assessments.
Vaz attributes the renewed political nous to a more unified parliamentary Labour party. She also points the finger at the party’s enforcer, Nick Brown. “He is an absolutely fantastic chief whip, and he’s been around a long time. He’s been the chief whip in government and in opposition, so he knows exactly what to do in terms of procedure and process and what works and what doesn’t work,” she says. “He’s calmed the ship quite a lot.”
But Vaz, who in October described the government’s approach to parliament as a blend of House of Cards and Game of Thrones, is unamused by recent boycotts of Commons votes by the Tories. Andrea Leadsom, the Commons leader who Vaz shadows, announced earlier this year that a government minister would have to respond within 12 weeks to a motion on the floor of the House. Were these changes enough to satisfy Vaz?
“No, it clearly isn’t. We’ve raised it a number of times. You have an opposition day, you have a motion in parliament, that’s how you debate. We’re not, as people have been saying, a debating society. It means something, a motion means something because it’s set out in standing orders. If you don’t like the motion, you amend it,” she says. “This nonsense about ‘we don’t know where we are, we’re going to do it in 12 weeks’, that’s certainly something I’m going to look at further. I don’t think it’s acceptable.”
She adds: “This is what I mean about the shenanigans and the House of Cards and the Game of Thrones. Why do you need to do that? You either know what your policy position is or you don’t. I’m hoping that the government does know, because they’re making decisions on behalf of the electorate, which is what they’re for.”
It’s not just the government for whom recent votes have posed a problem. Labour is still divided between its different factions over Brexit, with pro-Remain MPs seeking to keep the UK in the single market and the customs union after leaving the EU. Votes to that extent in the Commons have caused headaches for the party leadership.
Vaz argues that Sir Keir Starmer’s calls for a transition period over the summer in which the UK will remain in the single market and customs union helped rally the party’s MPs around its Brexit policy.
But are Labour, whose position appears to have softened in recent weeks, ruling out calling for Britain to remain in the single market and customs union for the long-term? “I would be careful to say that, because I’m not quite sure where we are on party policy,” she says. “I couldn’t say, because I’m not in that [Shadow Brexit] team and I’m not negotiating.”
In November, Vaz became one of 12 members of Theresa May’s working group on sexual harassment, formed after a slew of allegations hit Westminster. The cross-party contingent, comprised of 10 MPs and two parliamentary staff members, is formulating a proposal for a new independent complaints and grievance system. The group, Vaz says, is in the process of finalising their report.
“My only concerns are we need to be very careful about what we put through and that we don’t do it too quickly and that we do get proper advice,” she says. “I don’t want to be in a situation where, for example, three years down the line people say, ‘this is a load of rubbish’ and then change it. At the end of the day, we’re there to protect people.”
Vaz wants the working group to be inclusive with its conclusions. “This place has got people of all different ages, all different backgrounds, and some people are much more familiar with equalities issues and jargon and others aren’t. We have just got to make sure we take everybody with us, and we’re not there just putting our own personal views across.”
In the meantime, Vaz will continue to hold Leadsom to account at their weekly Thursday bouts. But with the country facing questions of huge importance, the sessions will be no laughing matter.