48 members of the Labour party chose to defy the whip and vote against the Welfare Reform and Work Bill in the House of Commons last night. Harriet Harman, the acting Labour leader, told her party colleagues to abstain on the vote, hoping to show the public that Labour are not just a ‘reject at all costs’ opposition party. The abstention was supposed to demonstrate that the party truly understands that tough decisions need to be made when it comes to welfare, and the state of the country’s finances in general.
The bill cuts £12bn from the welfare budget and includes many of the proposals set out by George Osborne in his Budget earlier this month. The benefit cap will be lowered to £20,000 per year; there will be a two-child limit on new claimants of child benefit; child poverty will be redefined and current legal targets scrapped; the threshold for tax credits is to be reduced from £6,420 to £3,850. These are policies that Labour would have championed in the past; fighting hard to prevent these types of cuts imposed by a Conservative chancellor, but without a permanent leader, no unified and strong opposition exits.
Such a dramatic split in the Labour party shows the huge job the next Labour leader will have at uniting members and colleagues who are still rocked from the devastating election defeat in May. The party is not heading in any clear direction, and with such a wide-ranging set of ideologies in the leadership race – from Blairite Liz Kendall to the left-wing Jeremy Corbyn – it seems likely they could stay divided and directionless until their new leader is announced in September.
Some of the notable names to have voted against the bill were three candidates for London Mayor, Dianne Abbott, Sadiq Khan and David Lammy. Of the four candidates looking to become the next Labour leader, Liz Kendall, Yvonne Cooper and Andy Burnham – who is currently polling as the favourite to land the job – remained on party lines and abstained. Jeremy Corbyn, who only made it into the leadership contest at the last minute, joined the other 47 rebels and voted against the bill.