Welfare reform is going to be one of the biggest challenges of this parliament. The Tories are determined to punish people who are already struggling and it’s going to be Labour’s job to find a way of protecting those who rely on the services the Tories are dismantling. The Labour movement has a proud history of fighting injustice, but under a Tory majority we’re going to have to think carefully about how we go about it.
The debates on the Welfare Reform and Work Bill show the scale of the challenge we face. Labour MPs have different opinions on how to respond (although we all oppose most of the bill) and the next few months will be an exercise in pulling together in the face of some real challenges. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend the debate or vote on the bill on Monday 20 July. As many people know, I was diagnosed with breast cancer in June, and have started chemotherapy. However, even if I had been there, there were not sufficient votes to defeat the government.
I am now in a treatment cycle which means that most of the time I am too physically tired or too vulnerable to infection, due to low white blood cells, to risk travelling to London. However, I’m making sure I am focusing on constituency work and on the elements of being an MP that I can easily do from Bristol.
Last night I was paired with another absent government MP and our votes cancelled each other out.
Let’s be clear about this: the Welfare Reform and Work Bill is a Tory bill and it is attacking people who are working but on low wages directly and the poorest people in general. It’s doing that by dismantling legislation and policies brought in by the last Labour government to reduce child poverty and poverty in general. Tax credits for working people and the Child Poverty Act in particular are under attack. By the Tories.
Labour during government did so much to reduce poverty. Measures included Sure Start; the Education Maintenance Allowance for young people; investment in hospitals and schools; the Every Child Matters agenda; increased employment on good pay and conditions for many who had previously been out of work or on low pay; the minimum wage; and then the living wage. Almost all of this has either already been scrapped by the Tories, with the help of the Liberal Democrats in coalition, or is under attack now by the current Tory government.
The vote last night was on the second reading. Labour put down a strongly worded reasoned amendment that set out the main – though not the only – reasons why we oppose the bill. This was rejected by the government. The Labour Party decision was then to abstain on the final vote of this second stage, because there are some things in the current bill which we support – such as increasing the minimum wage and investment in apprenticeships.
The bill will now go to committee stage in the autumn, and this is where the Labour Party will fight it line-by-line, by proposing many detailed amendments. Last night was not that stage.
If these amendments are rejected by the Tories, as we expect they will be, it will then be down to all opposition parties to vote against this regressive bill.
To argue that the Labour Party doesn’t stand up for the poorest or for the working poor is to ignore both our actions in government and our intentions in opposition, as well as the individual track records of Labour MPs. We’re still working out how best to oppose the Tories through our leadership election, but there’s no one in the Party who wants to back their unfair reforms.
When the progressive parties and progressive-minded people criticise each other, we only help those who don’t share our values. We shouldn’t argue amongst ourselves instead of attacking the Tories where they need to be attacked. On the other hand, if we oppose the Tories on things we agree with or even things we also proposed – like increases to the minimum wage – we just look silly.
If you’re on the left, I am asking you to support Labour in opposition, campaign with us for equality, and hold us to account when we return to government. Let’s work together to fight the Tories.
(See also my recent blog about the impact of the Tory budget).