Even the seasoned political commentators who are sympathetic to Labour cannot understand the reported popularity of Jeremy Corbyn, the left wing candidate for the Labour Party leadership. Perhaps those party members with more centrist views have left during Miliband’s leadership, they muse, leaving constituency parties dominated by the far left. These commentators may be right that if Corbyn was elected it would be electorally disastrous for Labour, but in failing to correctly understand his relative popularity they show how dangerous the Westminster bubble has become. It is not Labour party members who have changed, but the position of most of their potential leaders.
If you want to see the tragedy of what is currently happening to Labour, you just need to look at the Welfare Bill that was debated in parliament yesterday. This bill
● repeals most of the Child Poverty Act, and in particular abandons poverty reduction targets
● tightens the ‘benefits cap’, the total amount a family can receive in benefits
● extends the freeze on working age benefits for the next four years
● limits child tax credits (subsidies for the low paid) to the first two children
Although Labour tabled amendments to this bill, after those were inevitably defeated it abstained rather than voting against. Of the four leadership candidates, only Corbyn defied this party line.
Labour did not vote against this bill despite the inevitable result that it will increase child poverty. Indeed, an apt title for this bill would be the ‘Increasing Child Poverty’ bill. One of the great achievements of the last Labour government was to reduce child poverty, largely through the system of tax credits, and today’s Labour party has abstained on a bill that will set about dismantling and reversing that.
I doubt if any Labour Party members think now is the time to start increasing child poverty. They wanted child poverty reduced under the last Labour government, and with the number using foodbanks in the UK rocketing, they hardly think now is the time to reverse that. For many party members reducing poverty is a core Labour value - it is one of the reasons they joined.
So why on earth did Labour not vote against this bill? The main reason Labour gives is that they must ‘listen to the electorate’. Measures to ‘reduce welfare’ are popular among voters. It is popular because voters constantly see stories in the press and TV about people living the ‘benefits lifestyle’, and justifiably resent that. This is what people mean by ‘reducing welfare’. But if you ask people about child poverty, they overwhelmingly believe that it should be a government priority to reduce it. There are not stories about the hardship that poverty causes every day in the media, and how the welfare system is vital in preventing even worse. So welfare is associated with supporting scroungers rather than reducing poverty.
The other excuse often given by Labour MPs for supporting measures of this kind is that they need to show they are competent to run the economy, which alas nowadays means reducing the deficit. Yet we know there is no macroeconomic logic in reducing the deficit as rapidly and as far as Osborne plans. Again Labour appeal to what voters believe, never mind the reality. In addition, this government is cutting inheritance tax for the better off. So not opposing this welfare bill is equivalent to saying that the children of the poor must pay so that the rich can pass on more of their wealth.
This electoral strategy of moving the party to the right by abandoning its core values seems doomed to failure. Unless the plan is to outdo the Conservatives in dismantling the welfare state, Labour will always be seen as ‘soft on welfare’ by the electorate. Even if they voted with the government on every single deficit reduction measure, the Conservatives will still argue that Labour’s claims to be competent at running the economy are not credible, and use the unchallenged assertion that Labour caused austerity as evidence. In addition, following the Conservatives to the right is potentially suicidal because it takes for granted that those on the left will continue to vote for them.
If you want to know the disaster that can befall those who follow this ‘a bit to the left of the Conservatives’ strategy, look at what happened in Scotland, and look at what happened to the Liberal Democrats. However it would be very foolish to think that the LibDems are no longer important in UK politics. Their new leader, Tim Farron, will undoubtedly try and fill the void that Labour leaves on the centre left, and I think he has every chance of succeeding. His party voted against the ‘Increasing Child Poverty’ bill. He said
“The truth is the Tories do not have to cut £12bn from welfare: they are choosing to. The Liberal Democrats will always stand up for families. We will not let the Conservatives, through choice, and the Labour party, through silence, unpick our welfare system."
I’ve also seen it reported that he said he would have attended the recent anti-austerity march. If he campaigns against what he could call Osborne’s ‘excessive and obsessive austerity’, his eclipse of Labour on the left is assured. For those who think that poverty should be reduced and the rise in food banks is an indication of social failure, it will be pretty obvious who to vote for in 2020.