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It’s been quite a week to finish the first term of the new parliament. On Monday the Tories’ welfare bill passed its second reading by 308 votes to 124, the majority exactly equal to the number of Labour MPs who didn’t vote against it. This is an odious package of measures. Choice highlights include reducing the work allowance people on benefit can claim so that their payments are reduced, removing housing benefit for anyone under 25, and the two child policy which will deny benefits to larger families
The bill also reduces the benefits cap which any one household can claim to £380 a week. Not many people get this level of benefits and where they do you can bet most of it will be to cover the cost of high private rents. The effect of the cap will be to force people to move into poorer areas where rents are lower, cleansing nice middle class Tory areas of claimants and creating ghettos of poverty where the chances of getting a decent job are even more remote than before. This is a restructuring of welfare to achieve social engineering on a grand scale.
Independent experts have made clear that these changes amount to a massive assault on those who are least well off in Britain today. The poorest 10% will lose £800 a year. Sixteen pounds a week is of course nothing to a Tory minister – probably Saturday night’s tip in a posh restaurant – but to working families struggling to make ends meet it is enough to drive them into debt and despair.
It is astounding that Labour’s official policy on all of this was to abstain. 48 decent men and women on the Labour benches broke the line and voted with the SNP (and others). But 184 Labour MPs sat on their hands and allowed this bill to pass. We will never know how many of the 22 Tories who did not vote with the government on Monday night might have been rebels and how many just got the night off after Labour telegraphed it wouldn’t be opposing them.
I and my colleagues are genuinely struggling to understand the attitude of the Labour party on this. One assumes this is the result of paranoia fuelled by private polls that suggest they are seen as “soft” on benefits. But they will never win by trying to be harder on benefits that the Tories.
The following day parliament debated the finance bill. This gives the government license to change taxes. Highlights here included a blanket reduction in corporation tax which will give millions to multinationals and a pittance to small businesses, scrapping inheritance tax for people in million pound houses and the gimmick of legislating against any future increase in income tax and VAT.
The welfare and finance bills are two sides of the same coin. The cuts in benefits to the poor agreed on Monday will pay for the tax cuts for the rich agreed on Tuesday. Taken together the package is an obscenity; an affront to any notion of a fair reward system in a civilised society. And yet on Tuesday Labour abstained again.
In fact by the Tuesday afternoon they weren’t just abstaining, they had left the field of battle altogether. They had literally gone home; the opposition benches left empty. It was at his point that the SNP’s 56 MPs occupied the green benches facing the Tory cabinet, to make the point that they would encounter opposition from us if not from her majesty’s loyal opposition.
Clearly, my allegiance is with the SNP now, but I take no joy in what is happening to the Labour Party at the moment. There’s probably not much need for Labour in Scotland, but the people of England desperately need a Labour Party to stand up for them. This constant ceding of the ideological terrain, the refusal to espouse a 21st century version of a modern welfare state, and blaming the poor for their own poverty is corroding what remains of a once great institution.
The Tories have a slim majority and disquiet in their own ranks. With 37% support in England they have no popular mandate for controversial reforms like this. Yet Labour’s disarray is allowing them to behave like they had a landslide. Labour needs to get itself together, quickly, and start working with the SNP and others to build a united opposition. Let’s hope we get down to that after the recess.
This was a blog written for the National and published on Thursday 23rd July
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