Talking Politics: Labour’s welfare vote abstainers won’t feel the benefit

Louise Haigh MP, one of the 48 Labour rebels who didn't abstain
Louise Haigh MP, one of the 48 Labour rebels who didn't abstain
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For someone who’s meant to be steadying the ship until the next full-time leader can be chosen, interim Labour leader Harriet Harman seems intent on rocking the boat.

This week she called for the party to abstain on a key vote on the Welfare Reform and Work Bill, which ushers in the first of the Conservatives’ latest cuts to the welfare state.

In doing so she provoked a storm of anger from Labour supporters – not all of it justified.

For one thing, plenty have accused the party of not opposing cuts to tax credits – and they weren’t part of the bill up for discussion. They will come later in a bill of their own.

But still, Labour has attracted plenty of ire for not outright opposing a bill that includes a cut to the benefit cap and a four-year benefits freeze.

Never mind that the bill would have passed anyway, even if Labour MPs had all voted against it. What’s the point of an opposition party that is loathe to oppose things that go against its own manifesto of only a few months ago?

In a blog, Labour MP Andrew Gwynne tried to explain why the party had gone down this road: “It was necessary because the Tories have, perhaps craftily, lumped a load of stuff we don’t like, with a load of stuff they’d love us to vote against – that we most certainly ARE NOT opposed to.”

So the solution for Gwynne and his colleagues was not to vote against the bill as a whole because that would in effect be opening the door for the Conservatives to say in five years time: when we brought in rent cuts for social housing and committed to creating more apprenticeships, Labour voted against it.

Instead, they tabled a “reasoned amendment” – an arcane piece of Parliamentary procedure that sets out objections to bits of a bill without having to come out against the whole thing.

But there’s a problem with this logic. Let’s say you go out to eat and you order your favourite meal – for the sake of argument, a lasagne. It arrives and it looks and smells delicious. It’s got all your favourite ingredients in there. But clearly visible sticking up out of your favourite dish, baked right into the lasagne, are a couple of cockroaches.

What do you do? Do you carefully eat around the cockroaches on the grounds that you still quite fancy the rest of it and you wouldn’t want people thinking you don’t like lasagne any more? Or do you send the whole thing back to the kitchen?

Sheffield Heeley MP Louise Haigh, one of the 48 Labour MPs, clearly believed that, given the party’s objections fell on deaf ears, the contaminated dish needed to be sent back.

She tweeted: “Our reasoned amendment to #WelfareBill was defeated so I voted against 2nd reading, cuts to in-work support & benefit cap unjustifiable”.

It’s probably no coincidence that a large proportion of those who defied the call to abstain were, like Ms Haigh, newly elected in 2015. Years in parliament have a way of warping the senses when it comes to how things will look in the outside world, and the reality is that the subtleties of parliamentary procedure are lost on pretty much everyone outside the Westminster bubble.