Labour should have vaulted the welfare trap

by Kevin Meagher 

Conventional wisdom has it that you either fall headlong into a political trap or you carefully inch around it. This is said to have been the choice presented to Labour MPs at the Second Reading vote of the government’s welfare bill last night.

The measures contained in it represent a Daily Mail leader writer’s bingo card of populist welfare-bashing themes. £12 billion worth of cuts. A four-year benefits freeze. A reduced benefits cap. Scrapping child tax credits for working families. And restrictions on some benefits for families with more than two children.

The choice presented to Labour MPs was to vote against the bill and look flaky about welfare reform. Or to vote for it and risk the ire of the party’s core voters.

But there was a third option in overcoming this particular political trap: the party could have tried to vault over it. Labour’s frontbench should have focused on countering the callow game-playing of a government misusing the parliamentary process for its own ends by changing the conversation.

Instead of arriving at the position of either backing the government’s welfare bill or forever being depicted as the friend of the scrounger, shadow ministers should have been making a big argument about the regressive nature of the Budget, the lamentable symbolism of effectively scrapping child poverty targets and the removal of in-work benefits to those eponymous hard-working families.

The party could have welcomed measures in the bill to boost apprenticeships but laid the ground for opposing the egregious parts, which will do little to meet the bill’s stated intentions of promoting social mobility and tackling joblessness and will simply increase poverty among working families.

It would have allowed the battered party to at least remain intellectually coherent and galvanise its remaining support. The bottom line is that the public has already decided what it thinks about Labour for the time being. In their eyes, the party can’t be trusted with the purse strings and is soft on welfare spending, out of misplaced pity for the idle and feckless.

Frankly, there was little more collateral damage that could have been inflicted to the Labour brand by voting against the measures. At the very least, it would have avoided giving new Lib Dem leader Tim Farron, who’s parliamentary legions (well, all eight of them), opposed the bill outright, an immediate fillip. As it did for the SNP, who are now left crowing that, once again, that they are Scotland’s centre-left party of choice, in preference to Tory-lite Labour.

Harriet Harman’s hubris in trying to strong-arm her colleagues into supporting the bill, before being forced to relent, has shown her up as the tactical dunce she is. The whole issue has been reduced to a focus on Labour’s internal soul-searching and lack of direction, while George Osborne has slipped away scot-free.

The net result of a disastrous week, both in terms of strategic positioning and parliamentary tactics, is that Labour is left reeling; with the party’s self-confidence and self-discipline plumbing new depths.

The core is furious, yet the sceptical votes the party needs to win back are not impressed by half-measures. Osborne basks in the glow of an indulgent media that depicts him successfully springing his trap. Labour’s leadership hopefuls look like by-standers while the party’s interim leader is now a busted flush. The narrative of Labour’s decline gets louder.

The summer recess can’t come quickly enough.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Uncut

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7 Responses to “Labour should have vaulted the welfare trap”

  1. says:

    They should have voted Against. Abstentionism is cowardice and shows they were more concerned what middle England thinks than their own core vote.

    Our local Labour MP here in Wales didn’t vote against and it has gone down locally like lead balloon.

    Cowardice pure and simple.

  2. Madasafish says:

    Suggesting that Labour adopt thought out policies in Opposition is a good idea.

    But Ed M hollowed out the Party by employing people with no political ability.. And it’s unfair to criticise HH – she’s a temporary Leader and not had the experience of Leading..

    Labour’s basic problem is that GB managed to deplete the Party of talent and there is not much new – and where there is, they’re like Brer Rabbit – heads down and saying nothing. Which is emminently sensible when activists appear to have a death wish..

    The Labour MPs who had a successful career outside politics must be looking at teh situation and thinking it will be toxic to be associated in any way with the ongoing situation..

    After all, if anyone raises any sensible ideas, they are shouted down as “Tory” or even worse – “Blairite”..

  3. swatantra says:

    No Cowardice! Some god bits some bad bits to the Bill.
    When JC becomes Leader I’d like him to take the revolutionary step of scrapping the whipping system and leave it to MPs consciences to Vote Aye or Nay or Abstain.
    It might increase our faith in the integrity of MPs.

  4. Madasafish says:


    When JC becomes Leader I’d like him to take the revolutionary step of scrapping the whipping system and leave it to MPs consciences to Vote Aye or Nay or Abstain.”

    I never realised that the Leader of the Opposition had the power to overrule the elected Government and change the rules… I live and learn:-)

  5. Tafia says:

    As Harold Wlson said ( a man who won more elections than Blair and who Corbyn is no more left wing than) “The party is a moral crusade or it is nothing”.

    Last night it opted to be nothing.

  6. swatantra says:

    @ madasafish of course starting with his Labour MPs, and then hopefully the idea will catch on.
    The advantage is that the ‘rebels’ will then have nothing to rebel against! to impress their constituents and so may as well just pack it in.
    On the principle that if Labour is just a Party of Protest, and there’s nothing to protest about … so why bother?

  7. Madasafish says:


    Letting Labour MPs vote as they like sounds like a good idea .. until you fail to achieve something you want because your MPs think you are taking nothing seriously. And go home or on holiday and don’t tell you- because if you don’t worry how they vote, it’s human nature not to bother..

    And then it all falls apart..

    All I can say is it’s a recipe for chaos.. because if you want to achieve things, you need to be organised.

    EdM was a shambles and look where it got him.

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