Labour’s interim leader, Harriet Harman, has tried to defuse a rebellion over welfare by tabling an amendment setting out why the party disagrees with the government’s proposed bill, but suggesting that Labour MPs abstain rather than vote against.
Labour has been plagued by infighting since Harman announced on Sunday that the party would not block the bill but would instead try to amend parts of it at committee stage.
The decision to table a “reasoned amendment” came after Helen Goodman, the MP for Bishop Auckland, tabled a backbench amendment opposing the bill. It also followed further talks with the new intake of MPs on Wednesday night and again with at least 10 shadow cabinet ministers on Thursday.
The amendment, setting out why the bill should be rejected, was put forward by Harman in an effort to prevent the party from splitting on an issue that has been made more difficult as leadership candidates try to signal their positions while retaining collective shadow cabinet responsibility.
The frontrunner for the leadership, Andy Burnham, this week called for the party to oppose the welfare bill if a reasoned amendment was defeated.
Burnham met Harman on Thursday afternoon and is understood to be pleased that such a motion is being proposed, but his aides refused to disclose whether he would then oppose the bill rather than abstain, if the amendment was defeated.
Aides to Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary and a leadership rival to Burnham, also said she clearly opposed the bill, but insisted they would not brief on how the party should vote if the amendment is defeated.
Another shadow cabinet meeting may be needed to thrash out a final position after party whips have taken further soundings. An already-demoralised party can hardly afford a big split on welfare with different leadership candidates voting different ways.
Any divisions will be exploited by George Osborne, who is intent on portraying Labour as the party of welfare as opposed to a Conservative party committed to work.
Harman at the weekend said Labour needed to wake up and understand the reasons for its defeat, including public rejection of the party’s stance on the economy and welfare. She said abstention on the welfare bill would be a signal that the party was prepared to change.
Her stance led to a rebellion in the parliamentary party, and she clearly hopes she has crafted a compromise that sets out the party’s reasoned differences with the government without lapsing into a blanket opposition that gives the impression Labour is not willing to reflect and change.
The reasoned amendment calls for controls on and reforms to the overall costs of social security and supports the proposed reporting obligations on full employment, apprenticeships and troubled families in the bill as well as a benefits cap and loans for mortgage interest support.
But it says the house should not give the bill a second reading since it would “prevent the government from continuing to pursue an ambition to reduce child poverty in both absolute and relative terms”.
Harman will also propose that the party go out and listen to the public on welfare reform, including on the proposal that tax credits should only be provided to the first two children. She retains her position that the party needs to recognise that many people in work, and not on tax credits, limit their family size for financial reasons and will resent it if they believe the same financial constraints are not being placed on those on benefits.
Helen Goodman, the leader of the backbench rebels, said she welcomed Harman’s decision to table an amendment but added: “I cannot see why if you table a reasoned amendment rejecting a bill you would then go onto abstain in a further vote on the bill. It would be best to oppose all the way through because of the damage the bill does to people in poverty.”
Harman’s stance has created tensions in the context of the Labour leadership election with some Burnham supporters believing she was trying to portray him as an opponent of reform. But she is understood to feel strongly that she consulted the relevant shadow cabinet colleagues and insists she has no other motive than reflecting a recognition of the public mood.
Meanwhile Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign, still surging in terms of constituency nominations, hit trouble when one of his prominent young supporters claimed if Corbyn won he would have to act swiftly to purge staff at the party headquarters and bring the parliamentary party into line.
Max Shanly, a Corbyn supporter on the national committee of Young Labour and active in Unite, gave an interview to the leftwing website RS21 saying: “I think Jeremy will face problems not just inside the parliamentary Labour party, which I think is likely to split if he wins with the Blairites buggering off to form a new SDP, but also from the Labour party bureaucracy. New Labourism is still a hegemonic force at Brewers Green (Labour Party HQ) and despite having resigned as leader eight years ago, Blair is still the piper who plays the tune many party staff listen to.
“The Labour left will have to act swiftly and I am afraid brutally in many cases. The PLP will have to be brought into line, some members of party staff will need to be pointed towards the exit, and the entire party structures would, in my opinion, need to undergo a comprehensive and thorough review. On the latter point, essentially we need the sweeping away of the current party form.”
He added: “It would not be wrong to describe Jeremy as the Bennite continuity candidate, but with the advantage that the ideas Benn espoused and others worked for have finally seen their time come.”
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