There was no disguising the divisions within Labour over welfare cuts at tonight’s PLP meeting. An aide to Harriet Harman conceded that the party was badly “split” after the acting leader called on MPs to abstain on the government’s welfare reform and work bill next week. I’m told that 25 MPs spoke, with just five of those supporting her position. One rebel, Andy MacDonald, declared that the two-child limit on tax credits was a regression to the days of “Mao Tse-Tung and King Herod”. Labour whips expect 60-80 MPs to vote against the welfare bill in defiance of Harman’s stance. As he left the meeting and was asked what he thought, Neil Kinnock replied: “Not much”.
Harman warned the gathering in Committee Room 14 that “If we oppose everything, people will not hear those things we are opposing and why”. Harman recalled that Labour voted against 13 welfare bills in the last parliament but that only its rejection of the bedroom tax was noticed. While abstaining over the welfare bill, Harman said that the party would campaign against the lowering of the Employment and Support Allowance, the scrapping of maintenance grants for poor students, the abolition of child poverty targets and tax credit cuts such as the reduction in the income threshold. But to the consternation of many MPs, Labour will not oppose the two-child tax credit cap. One told me afterwards that Harman “bombed on welfare” and that there was “no consensus on the child tax credit changes”. He added: “She rather limped away, saying it needed ‘further consideration'”. Labour has yet to decide whether it will impose a three-line whip on MPs over the proposed abstention.
Harman’s refusal to table reasoned amendments to the welfare bill, outlining the party’s differences with the government, angered Frank Field, the work and pensions select committee chai rand the former welfare reform minister, who shouted at her that Labour had to defend the “three million strivers” who faced losing £1,000 from tax credit cuts (prompting Keith Vaz to quip that he never thought he’d see the day when Harman would be “attacked from the left” by Field). One senior MP predicted that Harman would be forced to back down at tomorrow morning’s shadow cabinet meeting.
After briefings suggesting that she has overreached, and is revelling in her status as acting leader, Harman emphasised that she “never wanted to be here” and that the job she wanted was deputy prime minister. From September, she would be on the backbenches and while she wanted to make “the right decisions” now, she would not “bind the hands” of the next leader. Harman’s many critics will be looking to her putative replacements for a clear commitment to pursue a different course.