Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
  2. Welfare
19 October 2017updated 01 Aug 2021 10:57am

The Tories lost the Universal Credit vote – why doesn’t it count?

MPs backed a pause in the roll-out of the flawed new welfare system.

By Anoosh Chakelian

On Wednesday, the House of Commons backed pausing and fixing Universal Credit before rolling it out further by 299 votes to zero. The 299 votes in favour of putting the flawed new welfare system on hold included one rebel Tory MP.

So there we go. If not one of our elected representatives voted to keep going ahead with the roll-out – not even the government ministers in charge of it – then hooray, concerned claimants everywhere can celebrate and recover from punishing delays in their payments.

But no they can’t. Those who need benefits will continue to be plunged suddenly into pennilessness beyond their control, evicted or refused a home, unable to access the financial help they need, have their children go hungry, rely on food banks, face barriers when trying to work part-time and care for children, be forced into debt, and vulnerable to domestic abuse.

Why? Because the vote in parliament was “symbolic”. The motion – to pause and fix the roll-out of Universal Credit – was an Opposition Day Debate. There are 20 of these days per parliamentary session when the main business in the Commons is chosen by the parties in opposition.

These votes are not binding on the government, so they can only ever result in symbolic victories. But even so, why didn’t the Tories at least turn up to vote against the motion? Because they don’t have a majority, and with about 12 Tory MPs calling for the roll-out to be paused, Tory whips must have considered it less embarrassing simply not to engage with the vote, and for their MPs to abstain (which, apart from the one rebel Sarah Wollaston, they did).

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

But just because the government tried not to take part, it still lost, by a thumping 299 votes. Without having the guts to back its policy through a vote, it revealed both dismissiveness towards the people it’s supposed to help, and lack of confidence in its own reform.

The House of Commons Speaker John Bercow also accused the government of making a mockery of parliamentary procedure, following the vote’s result. “If you choose not to take part and vote you can’t say, ‘well, we didn’t lose’,” he told the House, sounding rattled. “A minister from the government should come to the House and show respect to the institution and say what it intends to do. This institution is bigger than any one party and is bigger than any government.”

Content from our partners
Transport is the core of levelling up
The forgotten crisis: How businesses can boost biodiversity
Small businesses can be the backbone of our national recovery

The New Statesman has been reporting on Universal Credit since its inception. Read our coverage here