For many who voted Labour in the 2015 General Election, their decision to abstain on the vote for the 2nd reading of the Tories’ Welfare Bill last night will come as nothing less than a betrayal. If they were like me they voted in the hope that the polls were right and Labour could make an arrangement with the SNP, Greens & Plaid Cymru to form a progressive government which could begin to roll back some of the Tory/Lib-Dem coalition’s attacks on the poor and disadvantaged.
As we all know, that particular dream foundered on the electorate’s mistrust of Labour on the economy, and also in no small part on a late scare drummed up by the Tories which successfully roused the fears of English imperialist tendencies that Scottish nationalists might have a say in how the UK is run. Now, instead of a repeal of the bedroom tax we face regressive changes to social security which threaten the ability of millions to keep their heads above water.
A report by the independent House of Commons Library on the predicted effects of the bill requested by Labour MP Frank Field reached the overwhelming conclusion that those on lower incomes would be worse off as a result of it. No surprise there of course, the whole point of the bill is to reduce spending by hanging onto money which had previously been earmarked to help the poor.
I’d have thought it’d only be natural for a Labour party in opposition to try to defeat such a bill, by voting against it. As Simon Jenkins put it in the Guardian though, “voting against the welfare package as a whole would have walked into the irresponsibility trap. “ Jenkins, and many others, consider Harman’s decision to order Labour to abstain to be tactically sound. She wished to avoid giving the impression of “blanket opposition” having so recently lost an election and thus being seen to go against the wishes of the electorate, as well as not wishing to tie the hands of whoever is eventually elected leader in terms of policy.
However, there’s no evidence people voted Tory because they agreed with the specific cuts proposed in the Welfare Bill. Indeed, they couldn’t have done as the Tories refused to tell anyone before the election how they would achieve the levels of cuts they deemed necessary. There’s no reason to deem opposition unjustified on these grounds. Even if there were, Harman’s determination to prioritize the views of the 24% of those eligible to vote who cast theirs for the Tories ahead of the people who actually voted for the party she temporarily leads is nothing short of bizarre.
There’s more. Though Harman was explicit in her intention of wishing to choose the battles the party will fight, many Labour MPs chose to give conflicting explanations for why they were happy to go along with her plan. Leadership candidate Andy Burnham claimed afterwards that had he been leader the party would have voted against the bill, but that his position in the Shadow Cabinet compelled him not to do so because of the need for collective responsibility. Stella Creasy, a Deputy Leader candidate, reasoned that there were good things contained in the bill and she would prefer to try to change the bad at the committee stage than throw out everything. Creasy is very active on twitter and it was amusing last night to note her bio announces bullishly “Sitting on the sidelines is for Waldorf and Statler” as she justified to her followers sitting on the sidelines now until the committees come along.
Chi Onwurah, whose constituency of Newcastle Central would be affected more than most, released a statement outlining her belief in the necessity of welfare reform and the provision for 3 million apprenticeships contained within the bill among other things. Bafflingly she seemed to think that because she had already voted against the budget and would vote against “regressive measures” in the future, the need for her to vote against this was reduced.
A few Labour MPs seem to approve of quite a bit of this bill and perhaps it suits them to shelter behind Harman’s orders to sit on the fence for now. Despite the experience of 2010, when Labour’s leadership contest meant they withdrew from front-line politics for months and allowed the Coalition to win the economic argument without an argument ever taking place, they appear to be doing precisely the same thing now on so-called austerity and the cuts agenda pursued with ever-more vigour by George Osborne and his acolytes.
The unexpected level of support for Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership challenge suggests that the membership is both a whole lot more left-wing than the PLP, and a whole lot more left-wing than the PLP expected. On Newsnight tonight John McTernan dismissed Corbyn’s supporters as suicidally inclined “morons”. When the PLP ensured Corbyn got on the ballot mostly against their individual will to “ensure the debate was heard” I think they forgot Ed Miliband had changed the voting system to remove their overwhelming influence meaning the token left-winger actually had a chance of winning. They won’t make that mistake again, but their performance over the last few days has increased Corbyn’s chances even further as the grassroots collectively shake their heads at the muddled chaos that is the PLP right now.
Harman’s position may well meet with the approval of lobby journalists and the PLP but out here, where the cuts actually happen, where the people are who’ll be affected, it doesn’t play quite so well. Harman and the 184 Labour MPs who abstained on Monday night appear from afar to be engaging in Westminster sophistry, and seem more interested in internal party discipline than fighting against an iniquitous bill which will increase poverty among their constituents. If the Labour party is for anything it should be to stand up for the defenceless. Whatever their reasons, the failure to vote against the bill is less abstention and more an abdication of duty.