For what and for whom does the Labour Party stand? That has been – or at least should have been – a central question during the continuing post-mortem following the Election defeat. That question has now been thrown into sharp relief with the dispiriting fiasco of the party’s response to the Welfare Reform and Work Bill. Described as ‘one of the defining pieces of legislation in this parliament’ by political commentator, Steve Richards, Labour responded to it like a frightened rabbit desperate to avoid the ‘political traps’ set by George Osborne, designed to brand Labour as the ‘party of welfare’ should it oppose his regressive measures.
To recap: Harriet Harman, in her role as acting leader, caused a storm when she initially announced that the party would not oppose Osborne’s proposal to deny third and subsequent children financial support from means-tested tax credits and universal credit – the safety net of the social security system. In order not to appear to be opposing the few positive measures in the Bill, primarily new reporting obligations on e.g. full employment and apprenticeships, she decreed that Labour would abstain on 2nd reading. When it became clear that a sizeable minority of backbenchers would rebel, she agreed that the party would table a reasoned amendment, but insisted that it would still abstain when the vote on the Bill itself was taken. 48 backbenchers, led by Helen Goodman MP (former Minister with responsibility for child poverty), then broke the whip to vote against the Bill itself. Among other things, the reasoned amendment declared support for the benefit cap (which the Bill reduces further) as a ‘necessary change to the welfare system’. It remained silent on the critical issue of financial support for third and subsequent children. It was left to SNP, Liberal Democrat and Plaid MPs to lead the outright principled opposition to the Bill. And Green MP, Caroline Lucas, citing the leaked government figures that showed that the reduction in the cap could push a further 40,000 children into poverty, asked ‘how much extra child poverty is acceptable to Labour Front Benchers?’
How much indeed? That question hovers over Labour’s pusillanimous stance. The reduction in child poverty was one of the party’s greatest achievements under Blair and Brown. The party is rightly opposing measures in the Bill that remove government accountability for reducing child poverty and effectively erase the very notion of child poverty from the government lexicon. Yet it is prepared to countenance measures that will both increase the numbers of children in poverty and aggravate the hardship experienced by those already in poverty. It has fallen into a different trap: conniving with nasty legislation that brands having children as a ‘lifestyle’ choice and that contravenes the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child because it patently is not in the best interests of children.
How did it come to this? Sadly, even while it was forging ahead with its child poverty strategy, in government Labour all too often talked about social security in a way that reinforced the negative messages spewed out by the right wing media and that paved the way for the Tory onslaught. Constant reiteration of homilies such as the need to tackle ‘welfare dependency’ and ‘something for nothing’ helped to create a climate in which social security claimants are viewed with suspicion and disdain. In his recent Guardian article, Osborne was thus able to pray in aid a number of Labour’s Work and Pensions secretaries.
As Compass argued in its briefing on ‘Social Security for All’, ‘we should stand against the politics that uses these insecure times to encourage our worst instincts – to resent those who need a bit of extra help’. Now is the time for Labour to find its voice on social security and start re-framing the debate on progressive terms. We look to all the leadership candidates to take a clear stand not just on the Bill (working together with the parties that voted against it) but on the kind of social security system needed to provide genuine security for all as part of their vision of a good society.