The big news today is that Labour are in a mess. This is really odd considering that the news should be that the Governments Welfare Bill cleared second reading last night and the bill is awful, so awful that even the DUP voted against it.
I mean it truly is a dreadful piece of legislation, even judging by the Governments own impact study – 330,000 children from low income families will be hit according to the DWP. We don’t need to worry about the impact on child poverty, however, whilst a leak suggests 40,000 more children will slip into child poverty, the Child Poverty Act 2010 is to be renamed the Life Chances Act in this bill. So those poor kids will instead only suffer a hit to their life chances.
That’s not to speak of the four year freeze on working age support, the lower welfare cap essentially making anyone subject to it homeless in London or the South East or the fact that the impact assessment says the bill disproportionately hits single mothers, the young and ethnic minorities.
Instead of focusing on how awful the bill truly is, the media and the opposition are instead talking about the state – and I mean that in a post thirteen pint bender way – the Labour party has found itself in.
By moving a whip to abstain, Labour made sure that the Tories – majority or no majority – would have no difficulty in making sure these proposals move to Committee stage. After five years of Coalition, with the Labour party accusing the Lib Dems of being Tory enablers that sort of hypocrisy sticks in the craw.
And yes, it matters that Labour abstained. The Lib Dems, SNP, Plaid, SDLP, Greens and DUP all voted against the bill, that’s 79 MPs in all. Had all 232 Labour MPs joined the opposition 311 MPs would have been available to oppose the second reading; taking into account deputy speakers and tellers that would have meant 308 MPs voting against. In the event 307 Tory and 1 UKIP MP’s voted for it – 308.
Yes, it is true that 20 Tory MP’s were absent during this vote – I don’t know if pairing was in operation – although I fail to see why the Tories would feel the need to pair off votes when Labour were abstaining anyway – but even if it had been in operation we don’t know how many Tory MP’s might feel uneasy about backing a bill that increases Child Poverty, sorry, reduces life chances, newspeak is in fashion this month.
How many Tory MPs voiced concerns to their whips and were excused from the vote? How many if forced to turn up would have abstained or voted against? How many voted for it at second reading to keep their powder dry in hope it will be amended at committee and might oppose it later but would have preferred to see it scrapped? Yes, the Tories have a majority in Parliament. It’s a working majority over all other Parties of eight. If those eight Tory MP’s rebel they lose their majority and have to rely on UKIP, or the Ulster Unionist MPs (most of whom voted against the bill)
It’s perfectly possible that had Labour voted against and all Tory MPs dutifully voted with the whip the outcome might have been 327 vs 308. Even if that were to have occurred it would have meant Labour kept Tory feet to the fire and it would have forced Tory MPs who might be uncomfortable with these proposals to vote. It would also have meant the Tory Majority was 19 – not 184 and put the focus on how slim the Tory majority is and the measures in the welfare bill instead of Labour’s disarray.
By the same token it’s also perfectly possible that, with a chance of defeating these proposals, some Tory MPs might have voted no and that concerns voiced in private might have aired themselves publically. Of the 20 Tory no shows last night, we’ll now never know if 10 of them might have gone through the no lobby to see this motion defeated. Instead the fire is directed at Labour.
Harriet Harman, acting Labour leader, justifies her decision to move a whip of abstention on the basis that Labour can’t do blanket opposition, because she doesn’t want to let the Tories attack Labour on welfare reform and because they’ll oppose it at Committee stage and Third reading.
It concerns me that Child poverty doesn’t fit under Harman’s blanket, that Labour would rather swallow any old Tory proposal rather than test it or that Labour’s opposition to something starts weeks after everyone else.
And if the reason is a fear of Tory billboards accusing Labour of being the party for benefits – she should see the posters the Lib Dems, SNP and Greens have mocked up.
There was an easy line to take on this bill – Labour moved an amendment last night which they knew would fall – they should have used that amendment to criticise the most draconian Tory Cuts, propose alternative savings and made the case that whilst they support reform of welfare these are the wrong reforms.
Instead, they decided not to have a view. You can accuse the Lib Dems of not being strong enough to stop the Tories all of the time in Coalition but there is a reason why these welfare cuts, that will hit the working poor and children so hard, are being proposed in 2015 and not 2010.
If Labour MP’s aren’t up for fighting the Governments majority they should make way for MP’s who will. That Labour make it easy for the Tories is perhaps the saddest comment I could end on.
*Oh, and for the benefit of Stephen Bush of the New Statesman my proudest moment in Politics to date was leading the opposition against tuition fees as chair of the Lib Dem Youth Party – had some fire been put on Tories backbench waverers instead of just the Lib Dems that bill might not have passed either