As expected, the government’s welfare bill was passed by a large majority: 308 votes to 124. Labour’s decision to abstain on the legislation (its amendment was defeated by 308 to 108) made that inevitable. But the key number is the second one: 124. In addition to the SNP, the Liberal Democrats and the DUP, 48 Labour MPs (Jeremy Corbyn, Sadiq Khan and David Lammy among them) broke the party whip and voted against the bill – a major rebellion.
After the result was announced, the SNP’s Pete Wishart mockingly asked the Speaker whether the Commons could be rearranged to designate his party as the official opposition. That so many Labour backbenchers defied Harriet Harman shows how unhappy they were with their party’s stance. But a party source noted that a similar number (44) voted against the workfare legislation in the last parliament and emphasised that many were “relieved” that the rebellion was larger (the whips originally feared 60-80). The source added that Harman was determined to demonstrate that the party was prepared to “listen to public opinion” and would not indulge in blanket opposition.
Earlier today, Andy Burnham wrote to MPs vowing to vote against the bill at third reading unless “major changes” were made at committee stage. The next Labour leader, whether Burnham or Yvette Cooper, will face a dilemma: do they side with their party’s left against every welfare cut (and put themselves on the wrong side of public opinion)? Or do they give qualified support to some measures at the cost of splitting Labour?
Here’s the full list of the 48 rebels.
Sir Gerald Kaufman
Rebecca Long Bailey
Kelvin Hopkins (Teller)
Update: Burnham has just published a Facebook post taking an even-stronger stance against the bill. In the key section, he wrote: “Whilst we may have lost the vote tonight, that doesn’t mean the battle has to be over. Tonight I am firing the starting gun on Labour’s opposition to this Bill. If I am elected leader in September, I am determined that Labour will fight this regressive Bill word by word, line by line. I am clear that if the Government do not make major changes to protect working families, children and the disabled, then, under my Leadership, Labour will oppose this Bill with everything we’ve got when it comes back before MPs later this year.”
Burnham’s decision to oppose the bill so fiercely is smart politics in a left-leaning leadership contest (though Corbyn and others will attack his abstention tonight). But Liz Kendall’s supporters will warn that his stance would condemn Labour to the oppositionist politics that failed in the last parliament.