I’m staring at my Twitter stream at the moment with a sort of baffled horror as my left wing chums rend their clothing at Labour’s betrayal of the poor and the halt and the lame.
Labour’s stance on the second reading of the welfare bill was not edifying. It made me feel queasy, quite frankly. Anything which makes the lot of the poor in this rapidly fracturing society worse goes against the instincts of any decent Labour politician.
But here are two things you need to consider.
First, even if every Labour MP had voted against the bill last night it would still have been carried. The Tories have an ABSOLUTE MAJORITY in the House of Commons. There is some dispute over whether pairing practices had an effect on the vote, based on the numbers on the Government benches who voted, and how that number was less than the total number of opposition MPs. But if Labour had announced that it was going to vote against the bill rather than abstain, do you seriously think the Tory whips would not have enforced a maximum turnout?
Second, England has swallowed the Tory line that welfare is about sponging off decent taxpaying people. It just has. The country has moved to the right. (Scotland is a special case. I ain’t goin’ there.) Combine Tory and UKIP support across the country and it’s just shy of 50%. Add the Tories’ coalition partners, the Lib Dems, and it’s about 58%. Represented in that 58% are hundreds of thousands of people who used to vote for Labour. And Labour cannot win until it gets all of those people back. Remember, even if Labour had retained all its seats in Scotland, the Tories still have an ABSOLUTE MAJORITY.
So if Labour had voted against the bill last night it would have been a futile gesture, and not only a futile gesture, but one which put it on the opposite side of the majority of British people. It would have been used as ammunition by Osborne for the next five years. “Look at them,” he would tell the British public, “even now they still want to take your money and give it to the feckless.” It doesn’t matter that he’s culpably wrong about that. It doesn’t matter that he was culpably wrong about the cause of the deficit being Labour’s fault. It speaks to voters’ prejudices about Labour and reinforces them. And in the end it prevents people who would benefit from a Labour government from voting for one.
Osborne dealt Labour a bad hand last night. He’s really good at doing that. He knew exactly what he was doing. At worst, he’d split the parliamentary party. At best, he’d paint the entire party as reckless spending addicts. And somewhere between those outcomes, he’d have overwhelming support for the Welfare Bill. He couldn’t lose.
By abstaining on the bill, Labour played that hand the best way it could. It was never going to win – especially with the party’s base howling “betrayal” – but it achieved the best losing outcome. Was it high-principled politics? No.
But politics can’t always be like The West Wing – which, you have to remember, featured an idealistic Democrat president, while during its run in the real world the American public voted for Bush TWICE.
It would be lovely if the Labour Party were a beacon of hope for the nation, giving our consciences a healthy glow, making us feel good inside.
But it doesn’t matter how brightly your beacon shines if the country is looking the other way.
Labour has to use the low politics of the Tories against them, to show them up as the short-termist, family silver-selling, make-it-up-as-they-go-along merchants they truly are. If it does it right, it can replicate the success of the SNP, which is the master of using low cunning in the service of high principles.
And it has to go TO the voters who abandoned them where they are right now, and gently lead them back. You don’t do that by telling them they’re evil or wrong. You show them how their own lives would be better under a Labour government. You show them that you’re just as concerned as them about where their taxes are spent. And you show them, above all, that you’re competent enough to deliver on your promises.
Because the only thing that will make the lot of the poor in this rapidly fracturing society any better is the return of a Labour government in 2020, leaving nobody behind.