Protestors demonstrate against the bedroom tax in Trafalgar Square on 30 March 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Lib Dems defeat the Tories over bedroom tax reform - but would they vote to scrap it?

With Labour planning to amend the bill, Clegg's party could still be caught between two stools. 

Labour and the Lib Dems joined forces in parliament today to defeat the Tories over the reform of the bedroom tax. Lib Dem MP Andrew George's bill, which would exempt those who cannot find a smaller home, and those who are disabled and need a spare room, or who live in an adapted property, was passed by 306 votes to 231. In response, Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg moved a procedural motion seeking to have the bill referred to a select committee in order to delay its progress, but this was defeated by 28 votes. 

Given the unpopularity of the policy, and its impact on the poor (a DWP analysis found that nearly 60 per cent of the 550,000 tenants affected are in rent arrears and only one in 20 have been able to move to a smaller home), the Lib Dems are unsurprisingly trumpeting their victory. Defeating their coalition partners in parliament is perhaps the clearest expression of their long-touted "differentiation strategy". 

But with Labour pledging to amend the bill in an attempt to scrap the measure completely, the Lib Dems could still find themselves, as so often, caught between two stools. As Nick Clegg's former special adviser Sean Kemp noted earlier this year, since most of those voters who care about the bedroom tax either want it to be scrapped completely, or retained as a necessary welfare cut, the party is unlikely to win much credit from the public. 

Meanwhile, Labour is highlighting the absence of four SNP MPs from the vote. Alex Salmond's party has made its opposition to the policy a key plank of its independence campaign, but just two of its members were present today.

Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont said: "Far from standing up for Scotland, the SNP have stayed at home and let Scotland down. We can only conclude that the SNP want to keep the bedroom tax as a tactic to help their campaign. John Swinney refused to help bedroom tax victims because he said he didn't want to 'let Westminster off the hook.'

"Today Labour MPs voted to help the poor and vulnerable and won leaving Swinney on the hook. It is clear now that the Tories don't even have a majority in the House of Commons let alone the UK. Labour is winning again."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.