Of politicians and principles

By Virginia Moffatt
July 21, 2015

Last night's welfare debate in the House of Commons (20th July 2015) was a less than edifying experience. On the one hand, there were Conservative politicians arguing that the bill, which just piles on the cruelty created by the 2012 Welfare Act, was all about improving lives blighted by dependency. On the other, were the Labour leadership, who were prepared to lay down an amendment, but not to vote against it, despite a significant rebellion from their back bench.

Labour's muddle on this issue stems from Harriet Harman's declaration last week that the party would not vote against the bill . A statement that angered party members in and out of the House, forcing her to put an amendment to the bill. They were right to be angry. Harman's logic that the party shouldn't oppose the bill because the public voted for a Conservative government, just doesn't stand up to scrutiny.

It is the nature of politics that an opposition party is in the minority. That's why they're the opposition, they didn't gain enough votes to win outright. But just because they didn't win, doesn't mean they stay silent for five years. In fact, staying silent betrays all those people who did vote for them, who deserve a voice in Parliament, even if it is one that is defeated. Labour voters, who voted for a party they believed would stand up for equality and justice (after all, it's written into Labour's own literature ) must be feeling particularly betrayed today.

Furthermore, this particular government cannot possibly say it has a mandate for the welfare cuts it is passing. Throughout the election period, minister after minister ducked the question of where the cuts would fall. And as the teenage political commentator Abby Tomlinson has pointed out, during the TV debate the Prime Minister even denied he would be cutting tax credits.

So Labour had every right to stand up in the House of Commons and condemn him for that as the SNP, Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru, DUP and the Greens did. They would have still lost the vote, but they'd have shown the country that the Conservatives had lied to them, and they would have sent a strong signal to the government that its time to modify its behaviour.

It was particularly infuriating to see only one leadership candidate, Jeremy Corbyn, standing up to vote against the bill. Perhaps not surprisingly, as he has been a consistent critic of austerity from the outset and a strong defender of poor, sick and disabled people who are to be hurt once more.

Of the others, Liz Kendall had already made it clear she would accept the party line, but Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham, missed an opportunity to demonstrate what true leadership means. Both of them have stated that they oppose the bill and recognise that its harshness will do a great deal of damage. Nonetheless, they opted for party loyalty above doing the right thing, a hugely disappointing choice. Who wants to support leaders who are so spineless?

Whilst I was watching the debate unfold last night, I was reminded of the actions of one of my favourite politicians, William Gladstone. Gladstone was an early supporter of Irish independence, a subject as controversial as welfare reform in its day. Not only did he change his mind on the issue, but in his third administration he pushed through a home rule bill through that split his party. He lost and was soon out of office, but by his fourth administration was back with a second bill.

This one was killed off in the House of Lords, and home rule wasn't achieved (and then not entirely) till after his death. He may have looked like a loser in 1886, but, he was right and he was vindicated in the long run. But even if he had never won the argument, his example serves to show us that is possible to be principled in politics. And he is remembered as a great leader because of it.

If only the Labour leadership could demonstrate such principles! Last night was a perfect opportunity to tell the country that the Conservatives are wrong on welfare. It was an opportunity to begin showing the public that there is an argument to be had on social security, and for all our sakes, its an argument we need to win. And it was an opportunity for Labour to build alliances with other parties. But they blew it.

With no sense of irony, Labour tweeted during the debate ' We’ll never stop fighting for a fairer country. Will you join us?' 48 MPs were willing to take that message seriously, joining other opposition
in the 'no' lobby. The remaining 184 chose abstention and by doing so, tacitly ceded the argument.

Only last week, Labour were cock-a-hoop because, with the SNPs help, they'd forced fox hunting off the agenda. Unfortunately, we don't have any Conservative welfare rebels yet, so they couldn't have defeated the government yesterday. However, if they'd joined the other parties, they could have given it a well deserved bloody nose.

The fact that Labour didn't will be to their eternal shame. It also leaves us with a lingering sense that it seems that, in certain parts of the Labour party at least, foxes are more important than people.

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© Virginia Moffatt is the Chief Operating Officer of Ekklesia.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.