A furious row raged in the hours after the vote on the second reading of the government’s welfare bill. The bill is part of the UK government’s effort to cut spending on welfare and reform the system.
The government won the vote, which is not surprising as the Tories have a majority, having won the election outright a few months ago. The Labour leadership abstained (for reasons I’ll explain shortly) and 48 Labour MPs rebelled to vote against.
Ah, look at the numbers, said various SNP types after the vote. If every Labour MP had turned up and voted against the Tories the bill would have been defeated by 311 votes to 308. Labour are gutless Tory lick-spittles, says the SNP.
There is only one problem with the SNP line on this vote. It is complete rubbish. The MPs pushing it must know this, which is disturbing if that is the case, or they are confused and don’t understand parliamentary procedure and Commons voting.
The Tory total was 308 last night. You may notice something about that number. It is smaller than 330, the total number of Tory MPs. So where were they?
There was not a Tory rebellion; it looks rather obviously as though there was some pairing in operation last night. This is standard practice, by which MPs of rival parties agree to not turn out, cancelling out each other’s votes.
Up goes the cry: This is an outrage! What can be more important than voting? Quite a lot actually. Ministers may be abroad on government business, pushing trade or visiting allies. Some MPs might have a commitment that night in their constituency or elsewhere in London (perhaps a reception for a charity of which they are a patron.) Pairing helps parliament function smoothly, but breaks down when the government faces a serious rebellion in its own ranks (as happened over Europe in the early 1990s.)
The other explanation, if pairing is not in operation, is that the Tory whips knew they would be ok with under 310 MPS because the Labour frontbench had said it was abstaining.
Either way, I repeat: the bill was always going to pass. Anyone saying otherwise is either peddling an untruth or doesn’t understand.
Exactly, say the Nats. This is an indictment of how parliament is a disgrace with cosy deals and Labour MPs too lazy to do their duty and vote against the fascist Tory welfare fascist cuts.
Here, let’s allow for a little complexity, which the more priggish, pious Nat MPs with their moral superiority complex, never do.
Labour suffered a crushing defeat in May. In England the party’s line on welfare reform was, along with its economic policy, particularly unpopular. Welfare reform, and the welfare cap in particular, is hugely popular. Polling and focus groups show very clearly that voters think welfare needs to be pared back. That being the case, acting Labour leader Harriet Harman has decided not to oppose everything, to stress to the voters (you know, who just elected a Tory government) that Labour listens and is not a sect that thinks the electorate are idiots. Her plan, it appears, is for Labour to oppose aspects of the bill when it comes back for further debate and scrutiny in its third reading.
One can shout and scream about this – as the Nats and the Labour Left are doing online – but Harman is making a bid for Labour to rejoin the reality-based community.
There, the Tories may have some difficulties of their own next year when the welfare changes and tax credit reductions come in. The welfare changes, as Tim Montgomerie pointed out this morning, are popular now but they may not be quite so popular eventually. Frank Field, the welfare reformer and Labour MP, has produced work showing how hard millions of “strivers” in low-paid work will be hit, losing thousands of pounds.
George Osborne is a gambler on these matters. The Tory hope is that with a bit of wage inflation, and prices staying down, and continued growth, then there will be a feel good factor and those who lose out won’t notice too much or will move up the pay scale. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps…
So, it is all a lot more complicated than the SNP – out to destroy Labour and break the Union – are pretending for their own narrow, sectional reasons. They want to portray Westminster as arcane and heartless beast, and are prepared to say anything, no matter how unfair or skewed.