Yesterday’s vote could well be a milestone in the decline of the Labour Party. It was a shameful spectacle to see Labour’s majority abstaining writes John Westmoreland

Last night’s vote on the Tories’ Welfare Bill saw Labour resign as the Parliamentary opposition to the government. When Labour’s amendment to the bill fell, all but 48 MPs followed the whip and abstained. The SNP, Plaid Cymru, Liberal and Green MPs opposed the Bill outright. The consequences of Labour’s abstention became clear today when Osborne revealed plans to cut a further £20 billion from government spending.

Opposing the bill should not have been difficult for Labour. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) produced a report on the proposed changes to welfare that said it was “arithmetically impossible” for the Chancellor’s minimum wage rise to make up for the cuts in welfare.

Yet Osborne and Iain Duncan Smith were able to goad Labour and claim it is the Tories who defend working class people and that the bill would produce a “high wage, low tax, low welfare nation”. Smith welcomed Harman’s surrender but demanded that the 48 dissenting Labour MPs should be brought to account, “It’s clear that Labour are still the same old anti-worker party – just offering more welfare, more borrowing and more taxes.”

An historic betrayal

For Harman to concede that the Welfare Bill contained anything that Labour should support is as absurd as it is spineless. It is also almost beyond comprehension that all of the Labour leadership contenders bar Jeremy Corbyn failed to oppose it. Even Frank Field, the right-wing Labour MP who has consistently championed cutting welfare, was able to see the profound problems contained in the bill.

The cuts are not rewarding hard work as Osborne claims. Field puts the case clearly, the Welfare Bill is anti-welfare and anti-working class:

  • 3.2 million strivers will lose an average of £1,350 next year.
  • 754,900 families earning between £10,000 and £20,000 a year will lose up to £2,184 next year. Families earning £10,226 will be exactly £1,500 worse off.
  • 51,600 families earning between £20,000 and £30,000 will be made worse off by up to £2,884 next year.
  • 580,100 of Britain’s poorest working families earning less than £6,420 a year face the prospect of being ‘taxed’ for the first time. Those earning between £3,850 and £6,420 will lose 48p in tax credits for each pound they earn. This is a higher withdrawal of income than that imposed on the country’s highest earners. Families earning £6,410 a year will be £1,200 worse off as a result.”

Harriet Harman’s response to Osborne’s ‘One-Nation’ Welfare Bill was to propose an amendment which conceded the need for welfare ‘reforms’. Once the amendment fell, as she knew it would, abstention was the next ‘tactic’. For an opposition party to abstain on one of the sitting government’s defining policies is absurd.

The two key passages from the amendment Harman tabled are:

  • “a benefits cap and loans for mortgage interest support are necessary changes to the welfare system” – therefore Labour can’t vote against welfare cuts in the bill. But…
  • “it effectively repeals the Child Poverty Act 2010” – therefore as it stands Labour can’t vote for it as Labour has to protect children – from the cuts seen as necessary in the first clause!!

To most of us anything which puts more children into poverty has to be opposed outright, but for Harman it is about Labour being seen as a ‘responsible opposition’. The amendment and abstention together seemed to confirm the words of Iain Duncan Smith that Labour was “anti-worker”. Thankfully Jeremy Corbyn and the 48 rebels offered some important leadership that can give workers hope.

A significant stand

While Harman and the Labour leadership’s capitulation is nauseating, the rebellion of 48 Labour MPs opens up new possibilities. 40 per cent of the newly elected Labour MPs voted against the leadership. Their victory in the election no doubt owes much to their anti-austerity stand.

Among the defectors were David Lammy and Sadiq Khan, competing to be Labour’s London Mayoral candidates, and both clearly mindful of the devastating effects that the Welfare Bill will have in the capital. No doubt the chants of the 250,000 protesters who marched against austerity on June 20 are still ringing in their ears.

The broader Labour movement is becoming increasingly alienated from the parliamentary party that is supposed to represent them. While David Blunkett said today that the rebellion is taking Labour backwards, it is actually offering some hope. Harman has been panned in the media. If Corbyn and the rebels work with the SNP and others the Tories will have to confront a real opposition that defends us from both the Tories’ and their Blairite ‘responsible opposition’.

The path ahead

Yesterday’s vote could well be a milestone in the decline of the Labour Party. It was a shameful spectacle to see Labour’s majority abstaining. Harman and the Blairites made a mockery of the very reason many of us voted Labour in the election.

But the Labour rebels should be applauded, and Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign endorsed. The fight against austerity means a fight against the Labour leadership as well as against the Tories. Corbyn is at the centre of this fight.

The crucial thing is that the movement against austerity continues to grow. The development of a parliamentary opposition to austerity can help that happen, but its development in turn depends on those MPs deepening their links with the wider movement. The Left and the anti-austerity movement need to build the campaign for Corbyn on the understanding that his strength comes from his roots in wider campaigns. We can defeat austerity when the government faces coordinated opposition in parliament and on the streets. That is why we must simultaneously do everything possible to back Corbyn, while building for the biggest possible protests at the Tory Party conference in Manchester from October 4 to the 10th.

John Westmoreland

John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.