A majority of Labour MPs didn’t oppose George Osborne’s welfare reform bill in the Commons last night. While they claim to have plans to fight the bill’s provisions in committee, Harriet Harman has already declared that the Conservative plans to limit tax credits to only two children aren’t something the Labour Party should oppose, nor should Labour oppose the welfare cap. Young voters and working-class voters stayed home rather than vote Labour on 5th May, and Harriet Harman says
“We cannot simply say to the public you were wrong at the election. We’ve got to wake up and recognise that this was not a blip; we’ve had a serious defeat and we must listen to why.”
Out of 232 Labour MPs, over three-quarters of them – those who nominated Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, Liz Kendall, or Mary Creagh for leadership – who think that the Labour Party should be led by a more right-wing MP. Jeremy Corbyn got the smallest number of MP nominations of any of the candidates but Mary Creagh.
Unlike the choice for Liberal Democrat leadership (given that Nick Clegg and Alistair Carmichael weren’t options, with only 6 MPs to choose between, the LibDems could even have had a rota) the decision for grassroots and party membership and MPs for who’s to be the next Labour leader actually matters. The Labour leader is the leader of the Opposition and must be a good front-bench opponent for the Tories at PMQ and other debates: and, in 2020, help win the next General Election for Labour.
Harriet Harman had ruled that Labour MPs should abstain rather than vote against the Tory welfare bill: 48 Labour MPs defied the whip, including Jeremy Corbyn, but 181 Labour MPs – including all the other candidates for the leadership – obediently abstained.
Even the counter-motion Harman approved (proposed by Stephen Timms, Labour MP for East Ham, Shadow Minister for Employment, opponent of equal marriage) opens with crawling agreement with the Tories that their “reforms” are necessary:
there should be controls on and reforms to the overall costs of social security, that reporting obligations on full employment, apprenticeships and troubled families are welcome, and that a benefits cap and loans for mortgage interest support are necessary changes to the welfare system…
Andy Burnham claimed on Facebook that his refusal to vote against the welfare bill was really him “firing the starting gun on Labour’s opposition” and that Labour would “oppose this Bill with everything we’ve got” if the changes Harriet Harman approved aren’t made.
But Javed Khan, the chief executive of Bernardo’s wrote in a letter to the Observer on 19th July:
Beyond the well-publicised cuts to tax credits, which will leave many families on low wages struggling to buy basics, the government also plans to cap benefits. For the moment this will be set at £20,000 (£23,000 in Greater London), but a clause in the bill allows the government to change the amount in future too – without consulting parliament. This paves the way for the threshold to sink ever lower, consigning children from larger families to the breadline without scrutiny.
The most worrying element is the decision to ditch the government’s duty to end child poverty by 2020. Instead this bill would redefine “poverty”, scrapping income as the way we measure being poor and replacing it with worklessness. Given that two-thirds of our poorest children already live in “working” families, this is a completely unacceptable way to measure hardship.
Perhaps most worryingly of all, Chris Bryant, the Labour MP for Rhondda, tweeted in defense of his abstention:
If we'd won the election we would have been voting on abolishing the #bedroomtax last night. That's why we need to focus on winning election
— Chris Bryant MP (@RhonddaBryant) July 21, 2015
In a typically clickbait headline, the Independent (the paper owned by a Russian oligarch, which supported another Tory/LibDem coalition) “Jeremy Corbyn: Labour MPs are plotting a coup against the potential leader if he is elected”. For evidence, they provided quotes from two unnamed Labour MPs, one claiming that Corbyn would be ousted by Christmas if he won, and the other claiming that few MPs would want to be in Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet.
Given that neither MP wanted to give their name as the source of the quotes, it’s a safe conclusion that neither of them really meant it: the Independent’s willingness to quote them anyway says volumes about their standards of journalism.
But although it would be foolish to take the threats of a coup or a diminished Shadow Cabinet seriously, the opposition by MPs to what Labour supporters want suggests a troubling split in the party: if most Labour MPs believe that their grassroots supporters don’t understand the kind of policies Labour MPs need to espouse to win the next election, what is the Labour party for?
Harriet Harman issued a warning to the grassroots supporters who appear to be choosing Jeremy Corbyn in droves:
“not to vote for someone who you think you like and who makes you comfortable but think who will be able to reach out to the public and listen to the public and give them confidence. The point is not to have someone that we particularly like and feel comfortable with. The point is to have someone who can command the confidence of the country”.
While there’s been a lot of talk from the right that Jeremy Corbyn is the 21st century’s Michael Foot – Tim Farron reputedly thinks that the LibDems will be able to get votes from Labour if “comrade Corbyn” is elected, Toby Young tried to registering himself as a Labour supporter so that he could vote for Jeremy Corbyn, the Telegraph advocated that their readers should fraudulently register as Labour supporters to get Corbyn in – still: Jeremy Corbyn looks to be winning Labour grassroots first-preference votes: not only from the Labour voters and trade union members who paid £3 to declare their support, but from constituency Labour party members – the members who will be leafleting and door-knocking at the next election.
Getting a majority of first-preference votes doesn’t mean Jeremy Corbyn will win. Andy Burnham is likely to be hoovering up the second-preference votes, and will probably be the Labour Party leader next September.
And I don’t see Andy Burnham, who thinks the Tory plans for welfare reform aren’t worth voting against, managing to do any better than Ed Miliband in getting the people most harmed by the Conservative Party policies out to vote Labour in 2020. I voted Labour in 2010. I voted Scottish Green in 2015, because Labour kept veering rightward, refusing to stand up against the Tories. It seems the “lesson” Labour MPs think they should learn from their defeat in 2015 is that they need to be ever closer to the Tories on “welfare reform”. If Andy Burnham or Yvette Cooper or Liz Kendall are leading the Labour Party in 2020, I’ll be voting Scottish Green again in 2020: why vote for Labour if, when they’re in Opposition, they won’t oppose Tory plans to cut services and increase poverty?
But if Jeremy Corbyn does win, he has a problem on his hands which no other Labour Party leader has faced before: he hasn’t yet won a general election, but he has somehow to convince the majority of Labour MPs who didn’t want him to be leader and who think Labour must go rightward to get votes, that they need to change tracks: they need to oppose.
This will be difficult, because the selection process for MPs since Tony Blair has very much been against allowing the kind of left-wing politician who holds views like Jeremy Corbyn’s to be elected. Corbyn will have the support of Labour voters behind him – he would have to gain both first and second preference votes to win – but he won’t have the support of most Labour MPs. I doubt very much if they would plot a coup – to re-run the leadership contest against the popular vote would be profoundly silly – and no professional politician would speak out against the party leader unless they seriously thought they could topple him.
But if Jeremy Corbyn was to win, would Labour MPs really be able to behave as if they believed that left-wing values and principles will win them the next election? Can they understand that Nicola Sturgeon didn’t lead the SNP to victory because of nationalism but because the SNP were standing against austerity and welfare reform?
Can Labour MPs learn to be the Opposition? Because if they can’t, I don’t see them back in government.