Labour’s disarray over the government’s welfare policy and the party’s wider divisions over the best response to the general election defeat were underlined when 48 Labour MPs, just under a quarter of the parliamentary party, defied their whips and voted against the welfare bill at second reading.
Harriet Harman, the interim leader, had urged Labour MPs to send a message to the electorate that they were listening to concerns over welfare payments by abstaining on the welfare bill after voting for an amendment that set out the party’s objections to the bill.
However, Labour whips suggested that as much as 40% of the intake of Labour MPs at the 2010 election had rebelled by voting against the bill, apparently confirming that the parliamentary party had moved to the left during Ed Miliband’s leadership.
The whips said as many as 193 Labour MPs had voted for the amendment as proposed by Harman, but some of these then went on to vote against the bill.
Among the rebels at second reading were two London mayoral candidates, David Lammy and Sadiq Khan, suggesting that those who are standing for election in the party sense they cannot withstand the left tide.
Labour’s travails were made worse by the SNP, the Liberal Democrats, the Democratic Unionists and Green MP Caroline Lucas all voting against the welfare bill.
All four parties are bound to exploit Harman’s decision to abstain to claim Labour has forsaken its ideological roots.
Harman’s aides said they did not regret her decision to urge abstention, arguing the party needed to look beyond the confines of Labour, Twitter and short-term oppositionalism.
Her aides said the vote was not a surprise and many of the rebels were those that had long opposed the front bench.
The Labour whips said no member of the front bench had rebelled. Jeremy Corbyn was the only leftwing leadership candidate to oppose the bill outright, but Andy Burnham stressed he regarded Harman’s amendment as a vote against the bill and would take a tough line with the bill in its further parliamentary stages.
Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary, said: “Nearly 50 Labour MPs have defied their leadership and opposed our welfare reforms which will move our country from a low wage, high tax and high welfare economy to a higher wage, lower tax and lower welfare society.
“It’s clear that Labour are still the same old anti-worker party – just offering more welfare, more borrowing and more taxes.”
The SNP’s fair work and employment spokeswoman, Hannah Bardell MP, said: “The Tories’ cruel welfare cuts damage the working poor and vulnerable people, and had to be opposed.
“Labour had the perfect opportunity to join the SNP in a progressive coalition to oppose the Tories – but, with some honourable exceptions, they sat on their hands.
“This disgraceful stance will haunt Labour through next year’s Scottish Parliament election and far beyond. Labour have completely abandoned any pretence of being a party of social justice.”
Burnham did not comment on his decision to abstain on the bill’s second reading, taken partly due to the need to accept shadow cabinet collective responsibility.
He said: “Tonight I voted for a Labour motion to oppose the Tories’ welfare reform bill.
“It was a motion I had been calling for, because I have been clear all along – we cannot simply abstain on a bill that will penalise working families and increase child poverty.
“That’s why, last week, I took a stand against the Tories’ assault on working families, children and disabled people – and I make no apology for that.
“The Tory tax credit cuts I spoke out against will hit working families who are doing the right thing. They will actually discourage people from being in work.
“Tonight I am firing the starting gun on Labour’s opposition to this bill. If I am elected leader in September, I am determined that Labour will fight this regressive bill, word by word, line by line.”
The full list of Labour rebels
Sir Gerald Kaufman
Rebecca Long Bailey
Kelvin Hopkins (Teller)
Source of list: Labour List
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