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.