What was Harriet Harman thinking?

Harriet Harman has suffered a blow over the Welfare Bill - but she didn't have a lot of other options.

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When Harriet Harman became interim leader for the second time, she set out four main objectives: to oppose the government, to “learn the lessons” from the defeat, to have a good leadership election, and to keep the party united.

Things haven’t worked out that way. The leadership election is dire; the only people who sound enthusiastic about their candidates are either on the payroll or voting for Jeremy Corbyn. The party is so badly split that people are making jokes about setting up the SDP Mark II. If Labour has learnt any lessons from the 2015 rout, it’s that it didn’t shout hard enough.

And as for opposing the government: well, when even the Liberal Democrats are scoring points off you for enabling the Tories, things have gone very wrong indeed.

Harman’s problem, as one frontbencher remarked, is that “the four aims are incompatible: if one of the lessons is that we shouldn’t have opposed everything, how do we hold them to account?” The interim leadership is spooked by focus groups and voters who tell them that Labour says no to everything, except benefits claimants. Meanwhile, a leadership election distinguished by bland platitudes would be good for party unity – but wouldn’t give anyone a real idea of what it is the party stands for.

And on the other side you have George Osborne who, one frontbencher told me, is “setting traps for us, he’s trying to destroy us”. He wants to re-run the 2015 election in 2020: to be able to go into the next election warning that a Labour victory means “more taxes, more borrowing more debt”, to cast the Opposition as being in favour of unlimited benefits, uncontrolled immigration and unrestrained spending.

That was the point of the Welfare Bill, really: to force Labour to vote against measures that voters love but that Labour activists – and Labour MPs – loathe. 

The problem for Harriet Harman is that all of the good options are off the table. She can’t set new policy – so she can’t do what Liz Kendall has done, and target eliminating the £100bn worth of tax reliefs in order to keep child tax credits, or what Yvette Cooper has done, and maintain the inheritance tax cut to stop the public sector pay freeze.

She had just three options: vote for it, vote against it and abstain.  In chess, they call it “zugzwang”: where any move you can make just makes things worse.

The case against voting for it makes itself: look at the ugly split over abstaining, times that by a factor of infinity and add in at least one resignation from the Shadow Cabinet.

The case against voting against it without having an alternative plan is the 2015 election, where Labour was repudiated in England and Wales because people thought the party was a soft touch on welfare and immigration, and couldn’t be trusted with their wallets.

And the case against abstaining is making itself: Corbyn's campaign boosted, Labour divided and demoralised, its opponents bouyant. 

Not that Harman necessarily made the best of a bad job. What some see as a high-handed manner may have made things worse:one MP was heard to remark in the division lobby that they were breaking the whip in order to “give Harriet a black eye”.   One MP, who, after much agonising, voted with the party line, says “there was a meeting of the 2015 intake and we were all against it. There was a meeting of the PLP and we were all against it. We knew that we were heading for a crisis, and we did nothing to get out of it”.

Harman's allies, however, feel that the party's interim leader deserved more from her colleagues. "You have people who were elected on all-women-shortlists, who are only here because of Harriet, who have been here five minutes, attacking her, saying she's not leftwing enough," fumed one ally. "She should have enough goodwill by now," adds another MP.

Who's right? That the Tories have a majority of 12 means that, for the most part, Labour is deciding not what it'll stop but what hill it wants to die on. Not that means they ought to give up. As one MP, who followed the party line, observes: "What do we do if they say: drop the cap to £17,000? Or £15,000? At some point, you need to draw a line in the sand." 

But given that Harman can't, as acting leader, draw those lines, when Labour looks back on her period in charge, they should thank her for trying to keep the party's options open at least. 

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.