Diane Abbott told The Staggers that she was opposed to an "arbitrary cap". Photograph: Getty Images.
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Labour MPs set to rebel against party over welfare cap

Diane Abbott and other backbenchers refuse to join leadership in backing Osborne's measure.

When George Osborne announced the level of the new cap on welfare spending in his Budget and the government's plan to stage a vote on the issue this week, many predicted Labour would walk into his "trap" and vow to oppose the measure. But immediately after the Chancellor's speech, Ed Balls defied expectations by announcing that his party would be supporting it. As he explained at his post-Budget briefing to journalists, "We'll vote yes on the welfare cap next week...Ed Miliband called for a welfare cap last year, in his speech in June, and we have agreed with the way in which the government has structured the welfare cap, what's in and what's out in the next parliament."

Since the cap (set at £119bn for 2015-16) excludes cyclical benefits such as Jobseeker's Allowance and housing benefit for the unemployed, spending on which fluctuates according to the state of the economy, Labour is prepared to accept it. As Balls alluded to, Ed Miliband used his speech on social security last summer to announce his support for a cap on "structural welfare spending", a pre-emptive move designed to spike Osborne's guns.

But while the Labour leadership has endorsed the government's cap (and will whip MPs in favour on Wednesday), a significant minority of Miliband's backbenchers are opposed to the policy. When I spoke to Diane Abbott this morning, she told me that she would not be voting in favour of the cap on the grounds that it will "encourage cuts in benefits, rather than long-term strategies to do things to bring the benefits bill down, like housebuilding, like a rise in the minimum wage ... I cannot support an arbitrary cap".

She warned that the measure was "part of a political narrative which demonises welfare claimants; most of the public don’t understand that half of welfare claimants are pensioners and that another quarter are in work." When I asked her whether she would be voting against, she told me that she was "consulting with her local party". But backbenchers John McDonnell, Ian Lavery and Mike Wood have all told The Staggers that they will be opposing the measure, with at least 10-15 expected to join them.

The size of the rebellion will be a good indicator of the number of MPs who could be expected to oppose future austerity measures introduced under a Labour government. If Miliband enters Downing Street with a small majority, he could be held hostage by his party's left. 

P.S. The Tories are keen to point out that as well as voting for the welfare cap on Wednesday, Labour will also be endorsing Osborne's current fiscal rules: to eliminate the structural deficit over a rolling, five-year period and to reduce the national debt as a proportion of GDP by 2015-16. But one Labour source pointed out to me that the Chancellor is still forecast to breach the second of these commitments (debt is not forecast to fall until 2016-17), remarking that "the Tories have rather messed this up if they want to highlight their broken fiscal targets".

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Leader: The divisions within Labour

Labour’s divisions have rendered it unfit for government at a moment of profound political change.

Labour is a party torn between its parliamentary and activist wings. Since Jeremy Corbyn, who this week appealed desperately for unity, was re-elected by a landslide last September, Labour has become the first opposition in 35 years to lose a ­by-election to the governing party and has continually trailed the Conservatives by a double-digit margin. Yet polling suggests that, were Mr Corbyn’s leadership challenged again, he would win by a comfortable margin. Meanwhile, many of the party’s most gifted and experienced MPs refuse to serve on the front bench. In 2015 Mr Corbyn made the leadership ballot only with the aid of political opponents such as Margaret Beckett and Frank Field. Of the 36 MPs who nominated him, just 15 went on to vote for him.

Having hugely underestimated the strength of the Labour left once, the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) will not do so again. In the contest that will follow Mr Corbyn’s eventual departure, the centrists could lock out potential successors such as the shadow business secretary, Rebecca Long-Bailey. Under Labour’s current rules, candidates require support from at least 15 per cent of the party’s MPs and MEPs.

This conundrum explains the attempt by Mr Corbyn’s supporters to reduce the threshold to 5 per cent. The “McDonnell amendment” (named after the shadow chancellor, who failed to make the ballot in 2007 and 2010) is being championed by the Bennite Campaign for Labour Party Democracy and Jon Lansman of Momentum, who is interviewed by Tanya Gold on page 34. “For 20 years the left was denied a voice,” he tweeted to the party’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, on 19 March. “We will deny a voice to no one. We face big challenges, and we need our mass membership to win again.”

The passage of the amendment at this year’s Labour conference would aid Mr Lansman’s decades-long quest to bring the party under the full control of activists. MPs have already lost the third of the vote they held under the electoral college system. They face losing what little influence they retain.

No Labour leader has received less support from his MPs than Mr Corbyn. However, the amendment would enable the election of an even more unpopular figure. For this reason, it should be resolutely opposed. One should respect the motivation of the members and activists, yet Labour must remain a party capable of appealing to a majority of people, a party that is capable of winning elections.

Since it was founded, Labour has been an explicitly parliamentary party. As Clause One of its constitution states: “[The party’s] purpose is to organise and maintain in Parliament and in the country a political Labour Party.” The absurdity of a leader opposed by as much as 95 per cent of his own MPs is incompatible with this mission. Those who do not enjoy the backing of their parliamentary colleagues will struggle to persuade the voters that they deserve their support.

Labour’s divisions have rendered it unfit for government at a moment of profound political change. Rather than formalising this split, the party needs to overcome it – or prepare for one of the greatest defeats in its history.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution