Wednesday, 13 November 2013

We could have had a better tomorrow

You should all be a touch annoyed today, if, like me, you happen not to be particularly keen on the bedroom tax. There are many reasons to dislike the policy. It works punitively against society's most vulnerable whilst exacerbating existing problems around social housing, such as the fact that there's not enough of it. It's causing hardship and distress in hundreds of communities while having no positive broader social impact.

As such, the Labour party tabled a motion in the UK Parliament yesterday to repeal the bedroom tax. Labour, of course, recently announced that they would abolish the bedroom tax should they win the 2015 General Election, and most Scottish Labour MPs have been sharply critical of the policy, given its especially keen unpopularity north of the border.

Pamela Nash MP for Airdrie and Shotts said in March:

"It is hard to believe that the Tories could ever come up with a policy which could be more hated and cause more devastation than the Poll Tax... The Bedroom Tax seems designed to attack the vulnerable. It is more than just ill-conceived; it is positively vile in its intentions.

"Labour support sensible welfare reform but the Bedroom Tax is just plain crazy."

Badly-thought-out, unjust, nasty and unworkable - I find it impossible to disagree. Do any of her Scottish Labour colleagues? David Hamilton, MP for Midlothian, had this to say:

"It (the bedroom tax)... will penalise pensioners, foster families and military households," and moreover, "will not solve under-occupancy" as well as possibly increasing homelessness. He described how he had opposed the motion that initially introduced the policy.

Ann McKechin, MP for Glasgow North, was even more emphatic in an article she wrote for The Glaswegian, calling the bedroom tax "draconian" and stating it should be "scrapped before it causes any more havoc."

Jimmy Hood, MP for Lanark and Hamilton East, writing for the Hamilton Advertiser, blamed the Scottish Government for failing to "meliorate" the suffering the bedroom tax was causing local communities for reasons of political capital, all "whilst doing the coalition's dirty work."

Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown MP - when around - has been more comfortable to talk of the measure's "postponement" rather than outright repeal, but chimes with his Scots Parliamentary colleagues, dubbing it "offensive, onerous, unfair, arbitrary."

Shadow Defence Secretary Jim Murphy MP has been extremely critical of the bedroom tax on the grounds of rules within the legislation regarding its effects on military families, calling it "a betrayal of promises made."

And perhaps most memorably, Scottish Labour deputy leader and MP for Glasgow Central, Anas Sarwar, was so ardently opposed to the bedroom tax that he announced, live on national television, Labour's plans to repeal it - a full two weeks before Ed Miliband officially made the pledge.

So what we seem to have here is unanimity of feeling among most Scottish Labour MPs. They all seem to take an unfavourable view on the bedroom tax, and in most cases have made unequivocal calls for its abolition along with their party. Great. Ideal. Guaranteed to put in a vote in favour of yesterday's Parliamentary motion then, right? A motion that, just to reiterate, would have ended the bedroom tax if it had succeeded - that is to say, removed it from law.

Each of the 7 Scottish Labour MPs quoted above failed to turn up to vote or abstained from the vote for the bedroom tax's repeal. There were 3 others in Scotland on top of that: Frank Doran, MP for Aberdeen North; Brian Donohoe, MP for Central Ayrshire; and Douglas Alexander the Shadow Foreign Secretary (in fairness to Mr Alexander, he got in touch on twitter to say he'd been in Auschwitz as part of an official delegation to highlight the dangerous rise of right-wing extremism across Europe. This is about the only half-good reason I've heard so far).

Meanwhile, across the UK Parliamentary Labour party, over thirty more of their MPs also failed to vote, including 9 London-based Labour MPs (how hard could it have been guys?!). In fact, the total number of Labour abstentions yesterday has been clarified as 47.

That is almost one-fifth of Labour's entire Parliamentary group - failing to vote on a Labour motion, failing to vote for what is going to be a flagship policy of their 2015 General Election manifesto, and failing to vote on an issue with enormous importance for hundreds of working communities.

Abstentions happen. They can be explained away, sometimes even with good reasons. Excuses have already been pouring in from Labour's rank-and-file. We'll get to them shortly.

This motion in the Commons yesterday lost by just 31 votes.

Thirty-one. We were just thirty-two votes away from never having to deal with one of the most iniquitous, dunder-headed policies ever conceived in modern Britain, ever again. The reason this wasn't possible? Because almost fifty Labour MPs didn't care enough to make this Commons vote a priority. Including Pamela "Bedroom Tax Just Plain Crazy" Nash. Including David "Will Not Solve Under-Occupancy" Hamilton. Including Ann "Scrap It" McKechin, Jim "Betrayal" Murphy and Gordon "Onerous" Brown.

Including Jimmy "Doing the Coalition's Dirty Work" Hood. Do you see, Mr Hood, how the suffering you talked about could have very decisively been meliorated yesterday? But it's alright, I'm sure you had better things to be doing.

If I sound annoyed, it's because I am. Are we to presume that the Labour party had no idea how close it would get in the vote? That's what political parties have whips for. Are we to assume in the case of a vote of this importance there's absolutely no way the PLP could have bucked the "pairing" convention? Are we supposed to be relaxed about such a blatant missed opportunity, one which could have improved the lives and well-being of thousands of citizens and marked a positive change in political and social direction?

This notion of a "pairing" system is dominating the Labour spin machine today - the odd idea that MPs on opposite sides of the benches can be paired up with one another in order to "balance" any debate or vote, and that if one half of a pair decides he's not going to go along, the other half, by convention, does the same. Labour's logic is to say that if their abstainer MPs had showed up, more Tories would have shown up too, and the result would have been the same.

But hiding behind Parliamentary procedure isn't going to fly on this one. Indeed, the UK's own Parliamentary guidelines state:

"Pairing is an informal arrangement and is not recognised by the House of Commons' rules."

There is absolutely nothing compulsory about the pairing system. It is entirely optional. It is entirely a convention, not a rule, and as such can be waived. Furthermore:

"Pairing is not allowed on divisions of great political importance."

So not only is pairing not mandatory, it is actually against the rules to use the system on important political issues.

What happened yesterday is more than just not good enough. This has happened too often to be dismissed out-of-hand as just: "poor effort, must try harder next time." Does the bedroom tax no longer constitute an important political issue for David Hamilton MP? He was happy to tell us all in his newsletter how gallantly he'd opposed the motion that initially introduced the policy. Does it not constitute an important political issue for Anas Sarwar MP or Ann McKechin MP? In May of this year, The Independent reported that the Government had seen a 338% increase in emergency discretionary housing payments made out to struggling citizens only one month after the introduction of the bedroom tax. Glasgow City Council saw the largest number of claimants in the entire UK. So what else did you have to do yesterday, Ann, Anas, that was more important an issue for your constituents than the Commons vote?

The difference this time is we actually could have won this fight. It would have been a victory for the hundreds of communities dealing with the spectre of arrears, mounting debts and evictions. It would have been a victory for the thousands of social justice campaigners who have dedicated so much time and energy all over the UK rallying against this most compassionless of policies.

Maybe the Labour apparatchiks are right. Perhaps, even without pairing, the Coalition would have caught wind and whipped a few more of their MPs into voting against the repeal. Maybe there was never any hope. Maybe we would have never won.

But defeatism is no excuse for failing at solidarity. Win or lose, had every Labour MP united yesterday in the Commons to oppose the bedroom tax, it would have sent its own message. This exact message, actually, as articulated by Chris Bryant, MP for the Rhondaa:

"It's time for Ministers to repeal this cruel and unfair policy. If they don't, Labour will."

Naturally, Chris Bryant couldn't make the vote. His reason? "I was paired with a Tory."

Yesterday, our representatives could have voted for a better tomorrow. It wouldn't have shaken the ground at your feet, but it would have been a much improved situation for some of the most vulnerable in society. It hasn't materialised. 32 of the 47 Labour MPs who chose to abstain could have changed that outcome. Remember it well.

If Labour MPs aren't willing to fight on behalf of working communities and social justice when it matters, then what is the point of them?


  1. Brilliant! Now let them all tell us where they were when they should have been standing up for their constituents and for decency!

  2. So Labour will stand up for the people huh when? they all disappeared when it came to the vote louse-bags each and every one well thats my opinion,and comment.Change to Westminster is the only way forward and Scottish independence will force that change the people need the change.

  3. Of course there's a very good tactical reason why Labour MPs let the bedroom tax continue: it leaves a great big bogey man for them to campaign against. They've decided to keep the poorest poor for their own political gain. Again.