The most important thing in politics is to be trusted: if you aren’t trusted, then anything you say is discounted. Jeremy Corbyn provides one of the most striking electoral examples of this: Labour party policies are popular with almost everyone in the electorate, but, broadly, the 40 per cent of the electorate that agreed with Corbyn’s policies and trusted him to deliver them voted for Labour, while the remainder of the electorate, which agreed with Corbyn’s policies, but crucially did not trust him to deliver them, voted for someone else.
One of the problems that Labour has is that hardly anyone in Parliament is trusted to criticise the Labour leadership. That means that, in areas where party policy is cowardly (drugs, which are mentioned just once in the 2017 manifesto, in the context of hiring more border guards), incomplete (prison policy, where Labour’s ambition extends no further than merely a well-funded version of the status quo) or simply missing in action (anyone know what Labour policy on the Universal Credit is at time of writing?) there is no challenge.
Labour MPs, whether they want to change a specific policy or the party’s direction, have the same problem: as a class “a Labour MP criticising a decision made by the leadership” is about as popular as typhoid, and they aren’t trusted either. This means they cannot effectively lobby to change party policy.
Why aren’t Labour MPs trusted? They are the victims of decisions made by, in no particular order: Labour MPs in Jeremy Corbyn’s first Shadow Cabinet, Labour MPs in June 2016, Labour grandees during the 2015 Labour leadership campaign, Labour leadership candidates in 2015, Tony Blair, Harriet Harman and themselves.
Last night, 20 Labour MPs have rebelled over the party’s decision to back the tax cut for people earning above £45,000, which will see the point at which you start paying taxes of 40p in the pound move from £45,000 to £50,000. Crucially, the revenue foregone by the Treasury is more than enough to pay to end the benefits cap, which Labour’s 2017 manifesto kept in place.
It also means that, assuming that Labour wins the next election, by the end of Labour’s first term, younger people earning £50,000 – a salary that puts you in the top quartile of earners – would have been handed a 29 per cent cut in their taxes, once the abolition of tuition fees is taken into account.
I’ve spoken to most of the 20 rebels enough to know that all of them are genuinely committed to poverty reduction. In the last fortnight alone, I’ve written four pieces about the select committee work of just one of their number – Yvette Cooper – that have exposed the damage done by Universal Credit to lone parents and to women in abusive relationships.
But because of that hangover of bad decisions and choices made in the past, very few Labour members believe this to be the case. In most cases, that isn’t true of Labour MPs in their own constituencies, where their standing tends to be considerably better. Unfortunately for Labour MPs, very few have been able to change their position nationwide (though there are some exceptions, including among the 20).
Labour MPs will often ask why they should care. Mike Gapes made exactly this point on Twitter last night. The answer ought to be obvious: the only way that Labour MPs can change their party’s position on these tax cuts is if they can persuade at least 50 per cent of the membership to agree with them. If they don’t want to do this, their best course of action is to split off and form a new party.
The trust problem is particularly acute in this instance because – with the exception of David Lammy, Rodger Godsiff, Lisa Nandy, Martin Whitfield and Helen Jones – all of the 20 Labour MPs to vote against the 40p tax cut abstained on the second reading of the Welfare Bill. (Nandy, on maternity leave at the time, was not able to vote against the Bill but wrote a blog explaining her opposition to Harman’s stance on the bill.)
The two votes have a lot in common. Ultimately, because Labour lost the 2015 and the 2017 elections, neither decision made any difference to whether it passed. Their impact is solely positional. The blunt truth if you are an opposition party is that how you vote rests on two questions: can you defeat the government, and how does this vote change your hopes of replacing the government at the next election?
The aim of the 2015 Welfare Bill abstention was to show that the party had “learnt the lessons” of the 2015 defeat over welfare and to avoid boxing the new leader (whoever they turned out to be) in over welfare. The aim of the 2018 tax abstention was to avoid the party being seen as a party of taxes on “ordinary” people. and to allow the Labour leadership to go into the next election with the same line on taxation as it had at the last. In neither case could the party defeat the government – the consequences of the vote are solely positional.
There are a number of perfectly good reasons to vote for one but not the other, and there are number of them held by those MPs who abstainrf on the Welfare Bill who voted against the tax cuts – but none of them have done a very good job of publicly articulating what has changed for them. And because of this, they have not established trust with party members and as a result they are unable to influence party policy on tax.
When I made this point on Twitter, the Labour MP Lucy Powell argued that this tactical question didn’t matter. She said that what mattered to her was being able to “look my constituents in the eye” and she wants to “make a difference to those who need me to stand up for them”.
But the trouble is she is not making a difference to those who need her to stand up for them – because in the real world, the package of continued austerity and tax cuts that benefit the better off passed the House of Commons. And if Labour wins the next election, then, as it stands, the party’s policy platform is going to be committed to maintaining these cuts, sending another large chunk of revenue in the direction of the upper quartile of earners with the abolition of tuition fees, and very little in the way of spending outlay for people hit by the Universal Credit rollout or the benefits freeze.
The only way that MPs like Powell are going to “make a difference” to that is if they are able to become more influential within the Labour party and if the Labour party goes on to win an election. It is difficult to see how those 17 votes last night moved the 17 Labour MPs closer to either objective. However one feels about the Welfare Bill, it came about because Harriet Harman did understand correctly that the way MPs “make a difference” is by passing laws and wielding power to change the conditions experienced by their constituents – not by asking themselves what they needed to do to be able to look their constituents in the eye.