Efforts by the acting Labour leader, Harriet Harman, to show the party has listened to the electorate and will change its stance on welfare appear to be on the brink of collapse as she faced a backlash from three leadership contenders, and a stormy meeting of Labour MPs on Monday.
Harman had announced in a BBC Sunday Politics interview that Labour would abstain in a vote on the welfare bill, accept a lower household welfare benefit cap and not oppose limiting child tax credits for families to a couple’s first two children from 2017.
The proposals have been criticised by party activists and some leadership candidates. She is due to address a meeting of Labour MPs on Monday night on the issue. Harman had agreed her stance with some shadow cabinet colleagues, and the item had been discussed by a shadow cabinet meeting at which only Andy Burnham of the leadership contenders were present.
Three of the four leadership candidates – Burnham, Jeremy Corbynand Yvette Cooper – all signalled their opposition to the move, and some of their allies warned Harman she has to act like an interim leader and not make major policy changes. Harman’s aides said the issues had been discussed with the shadow cabinet and she had informed leadership candidates. The aides added votes were imminent on the budget this week and the new welfare bill before the summer recess so some decisions were inescapable.
Burnham raised objections at the shadow cabinet, but Harman reminded the shadow health secretary that Labour had lost two elections.
It now appears Labour’s shift on welfare will be more limited in the short term. Harman’s aides were forced to acknowledge that the key parliamentary vote on limiting tax credits to the first two children will not happen until a committee stage in the autumn after a new leader has been elected.
Chris Leslie, the shadow chancellor, also said Labour would vote against the budget resolution on Tuesday due to the scale of the tax credits cuts announced. Labour is likely to abstain on the welfare bill and will press for changes on the household benefit cap so carers and the disabled are excluded. Labour will also oppose plans to cut the value of the Employment Support Allowance.
In response to Harman’s remarks on Sunday, Corbyn said: “If it is proposed that Labour MPs are being asked to vote for the government’s plans to cut benefits to families, I am not willing to vote for policies that will push more children into poverty. Families are suffering enough. We shouldn’t play the government’s political games when the welfare of children is at stake.”
The Burnham camp said: “Andy opposes cuts to child tax credits. These are paid to people who are doing the right thing and working hard to make ends meet. These tax credit changes are regressive, they are wrong, they hit families in work and Andy opposes them.”
Yvette Cooper’s team said: “Yvette has made clear from the start that she does not believe the best way to reduce the deficit is to hit working families, reduce work incentives and push more children into poverty. She has said that the Tory plans for cutting tax credits and abandoning the child poverty target do both and Labour should strongly oppose them.”
An aide to Harman said the interim leader was ready to take some heat over the issue, including possibly at the meeting of Labour MPs on Monday night, but she felt she had a responsibility to send some messages to the public.
“How the party reacts in the early days of opposition can be very formative to how the party is viewed – as it discovered in 2010. No one thinks she is on the right of the party but she is reflecting very deeply on what she has heard right across the country about why the party has lost twice,” said the aide.
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