The UK political world has been dominated over the last 48 hours over the Welfare Bill. This bill attempts to cut £12 billion from the welfare budget in a series of changes to tax credits and other benefits. The £12 billion figure was in the Tory manifesto and having won a majority, they argue perfectly reasonably they are doing what they were elected to do. There is much in the bill I welcome, starting to move to higher wages and less welfare for those in work is a principal to be supported. and restricting tax credits to 2 children after 2017 are measures that are welcome. The ESA (Employment And Support Allowance) changes where disabled people fit for work will lose £30 a week if they are new claimants is more difficult territory. The bit extra may actually be helpful to get them back into work, a policy that could backfire in it’s aims, which I do not dispute are perfectly noble ones.
The first round of votes took place in the House of Commons last and it was overwhelmingly passed. Given the Tory majority of 12, it should not however of overwhelmingly passed if all the opposition were against it, The SNP, Liberal Democrats (all eight of them) as well as Caroline Lucas of the green party and some of the Northern Ireland MP’s all voted against. However the Labour leadership advised their members to abstain leading to acrimony. For the other opposition parties the SNP toured the studios to claim if Labour had voted with them they would have voted the bill down (Not true as a number of Tory MP’s were given the night off knowing they were not needed). The Liberal Democrats have been making pleas to Labour voters to ‘Join the real opposition’. And for Labour, It lead to rows between the acting leadership and the leadership contenders and it is Labour for whom the fall-out for this is the most interesting.
It should first be said Labour only have an acting leadership at the moment. They are currently in the middle of a leadership contest which covers a huge spectrum of Labour opinion. Liz Kendall is a moderate on the right of the party and has hinted if leader she may support aspects of the Welfare Bill. This is one of a number of areas where she believes Labour have got on the wrong side of the public debate causing their defeat in May. On the other side there is Jeremy Corbyn, the Marxist contender who has no truck of any aspect of welfare reform whatsoever. He sees at as a nasty attack on the poor Labour is supposed to represent. Somewhere in between is Andy Burnham who earlier in the campaign was clear lessons had to be learned, but historically his views have been seen as pretty close to former leader Ed Miliband, by no means a Jeremy Corbyn but still pretty much to the same left-wing ideas that lost the General Election. Then there is Yvette Cooper who has been shown in the contest to be very difficult to read, although her pronouncements so far have appeared to be closer to Burnham than Kendall, for example, refusing to accept Labour spent too much while in Government.
Acting leader Harman, a veteran of the political scene, is in no mood to use her position to hold a position of neutrality between the contenders until the Labour movement decide who they want. On welfare she advised the party to abstain, not vote against the bill siding with Kendall, Harman has taken the view, much to the dismay of those on the left, that opposing a bill like this is repeating the mistakes that led to defeat in May. this is said to have angered Burnham who wanted to take a tough line to which Harman has pointed out that did he not notice Labour lost the election?
In turn Burnham has angered the left on social media and elsewhere. He has stated if leader he will oppose the bill, but towed the line last night by abstaining. Corbyn is the only contender to have opposed the bill in the vote to the surprise of nobody. He was joined by 47 other Labour MP’s, almost half of the from the new 2015 intake. It’s Burnham who has been damaged by it the most however. Nobody expected Kendall to vote against the bill, some will be disappointed by Cooper not doing so, but most thought Burnham would and he didn’t. Since then he has called for leadership and re-iterated he will oppose the bill at further stages if he is elected, but for many the damage has already been done.
Burnham may yet recover and still win the leadership and it is clear the battle increasingly looks like it is between him and Corbyn. Labour is not yet ready for Kendall and Cooper’s campaign has been weak, she also has the problem that in poll after poll both before and after the election, she comes out badly in terms of likability, however talented she may actually be. What the welfare bill shows however is that the personality may matter less than the perception of Labour being divided and not quite knowing what it wants to stand for. Even if it did, could it now win either way? If they backed the welfare bill they would face additional vitriol from many of it’s own supporters, however it is my view that Kendall and Harman are right that opposing the bill reinforces the idea that they are against the welfare reform those they failed to win around in May actually support and ensures Labour set off on the road to another defeat.
I don’t share the view of some that Labour are dead. They have 70 more MP’s than the Tories did in 1997 and a younger, albeit more extreme (Some of whom will become more moderate in time), activist base than the Tories did back then. They can and I suspect will at some point come back. It does not look like happening anytime soon though. Given the tensions of the last week, whomever wins in September may be inheriting a poisoned chalice of a job right now.