That Welfare Bill

Back we go, then, to a particular interest of mine; the fuzzy thinking on the left.

In the aftermath of George Osborne’s calamitous budget, I’ve frequently seen it argued that, out of the four Labour leadership candidates from last year, only Jeremy Corbyn would have opposed the disability cuts. This is seemingly justified by the way the candidates all voted on the Welfare Reform and Work Bill in July 2015. For the uninitiated, this Conservative bill contained proposals to reduce the household benefit cap and freeze many other benefits and tax credits.

Spend any time talking to a Corbynite and the Welfare Bill looms large; Jeremy Corbyn was the only leadership candidate to vote against the proposals at the second reading in July, and this surely played a part in his election victory in September. But I think it’s worth examining exactly what happened with the bill, as I feel that the other leadership candidates are being done a disservice here.

Process of a UK Parliamentary Bill

As shown in the diagram above, bills originating in the House of Commons have three readings. The Welfare Reform and Work bill’s first reading took place on July 9, 2015. No vote happens at this stage.

The second reading and a parliamentary debate occurred on July 20. Before the bill was even voted on, Labour proposed an amendment, which was intended to block its progress.

This amendment argued that the bill would effectively repeal the Child Poverty Act, and would introduce measures which would be unfair to sick and disabled people; as such, the amendment argued that the bill should not proceed.

193 Labour MPs voted to support this amendment and so block the bill; these MPs included Yvette Cooper, Liz Kendall, and Andy Burnham. Interestingly, Jeremy Corbyn abstained, along with all SNP MPs. You can see the votes here.

This amendment was defeated, and so MPs voted on the second reading of the bill. Harriet Harman asked Labour MPs to abstain, and 184 did, including all leadership candidates apart from Jeremy Corbyn. This abstention, this is the vote that Corbynites point to as incontrovertible proof that most Labour MPs are immoral, austerity loving Red Tories.

But if that were true, why wouldn’t they just vote in favour? Why would they have tried to pass an amendment that would have blocked the bill entirely? Consider the following.

  • A bill passing its second reading does not mean it becomes law. Following this vote, the bill goes through various stages where it is scrutinised and challenged, line by line.
  • There were elements of the bill that were positive. The bill committed to create three million apprenticeships, to reduce rental costs in social housing, and to provide support for early intervention programmes.
  • There were not enough Labour MPs to vote the bill down in any case.

Given all of this, Harriet Harman decided, unwisely, to use the vote as a platform; to demonstrate that Labour had heard an electorate which thought that the party spends too much on welfare. Further, there were parts of the bill that Labour wanted to retain, as Dan Jarvis says here. So Labour abstained, with the strategy being to either amend the bill at the committee stage, or to try and vote it down at the third reading.

At the third and final reading of the bill in the Commons, the text still contained the measures that Labour objected to, and so the party opposed it. 209 Labour MPs voted against; including Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, and Liz Kendall.

It’s worth mentioning Liz Kendall briefly, as she is a bête noire of the Corbynites. She spoke out in favour of the welfare cap during the leadership election, didn’t she? Surely at least she must be one of these Red Tories?

Well, not really. She has almost always voted against reducing spending on welfare benefits in parliament. Her argument during the election was that we need to reduce welfare spend by getting employers to pay higher wages rather than getting taxpayers to foot the bill, which doesn’t seem unreasonable. And the economic position she took was echoed recently by John McDonnell. Her support for reducing the welfare cap was always qualified; she would oppose it if we “show how we can pay for the alternative”.

Let’s be clear. Abstaining in the second reading of the Welfare Reform and Work bill was the wrong decision. Clearly it is something that we in the Labour Party should have opposed, in the interests of protecting the sick and reducing poverty, as Hilary Benn says here.

But even from a strategic viewpoint it was a mistake; the Labour response to the bill will be long forgotten by the next general election, and we were weeks away from electing a new leader who would want to construct their own economic narrative in any case. Harman’s desire to hear the electorate was laudable but a bit confused; the electorate had, two months previously, voted for us to provide opposition. Opposing governmental policy would have been a reasonable thing to do.

But let’s not pretend that Labour MPs are signed up to austerity, or that by abstaining, they helped pass this into law. This was Harriet Harman, hoping to send a message to the electorate, in a vote that couldn’t be won, and also trying to salvage the positive elements of the bill in committee. People claiming that “Labour might as well have supported it” fundamentally do not understand how parliament works. We can file this whole business under “stupid mistake” rather than “evil Tory”.

Ultimately, the reason this welfare bill passed is because the Conservative party has a majority. To use this one abstention as a stick to beat Labour MPs with is not just counter-productive; it is also ill-informed nonsense.

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